Archive for April, 2007

OLPC Impressions

It’s been more than a week since I helped with the OLPC-za stand at the Digital Freedom Expo, so finally here’s an attempt to document my thoughts.

The Laptop

OLPC demo
Photo: Antoine van Gelder

My first impression was that the XO seems well constructed, even in a beta version. It is sturdy and light, and looks attractive. I don’t know if it will have a laptop case as part of the $100 $175 – the carrying handle suggests that it won’t, so I wonder how long the shiny white surfaces will stay shiny white…

The questions and comments on the XO at the event included the following:

  • How much does it cost? (Answer: “One hundred million dollars… for the minimum order of 1 million…”) (Yes, more than that in reality… especially when you include servers)
  • Where can I get one?
  • Was it made by Apple? (No, by Quanta, but they do make some of Apple’s hardware)
  • Isn’t the screen too small to run a spreadsheet? (Do 6-year-olds need a spreadsheet?)
  • Does it come with OpenOffice? (No, but the word processor writing activity is based on Abiword)

Some people would not believe that the XO, when placed next to my Sony Vaio, is a fully capable laptop. (A demo of the laptop convinced them it is real, though…)

The most effective demo actually was the camera activity which shows the live video from the camera – webcam style – and captures an image from it. Everybody loved that, and commented on how their much more expensive hardware had no such camera – or their cellphone with a camera costs more than the XO!

The Software

The first clue that the interface is different comes from the keyboard – see here for a diagram. Note the symbols, especially along the top row. The laptop runs on a stripped down version of Fedora Core 6, but only the boot up sequence looks familiar. The user interface, known as Sugar, is completely different. The symbols occuring on the keyboard are also used in the software.

The best guide to the software that I’ve found is the lengthy Human Interface Guidelines page on the OLPC wiki. See also this IBM DeveloperWorks article: Sugar, the XO laptop, and One Laptop Per Child. In summary, some of the major features:

  • There are no menus. Functionality is generally implied pictorially by icons. The icons are culture-neutral to some extent – for example the camera is denoted by an eye, rather than a lens or picture of a camera.
  • There is no “save”. Work is saved on the fly, and can be accessed by a Journal activity. This means there is no worry about “where” you saved something or whether you remembered to save it at all. Tagging is implemented in the Journal to aid categorising and finding things.
  • There is no “open”. You can resume an activity from the Journal, which acts like a type of version control, so you can go back in time and resume earlier versions of whatever you are working on.
  • While Internet is not assumed, the mesh network is always in operation. Most activities can be shared with the child’s group of friends, classmates, or others in the area. Most content, such as pictures, audio or video can be shared.
  • And lots lots more – I really can’t do this justice!

The irony is that while my generation are more comfortable with technology than my parents’, for perhaps the first time I was confronted with a strange interface and wondered if this is how it will be when my kids get to grips with technology I never had… I had to “unlearn” the familiar, since in a lot of ways there aren’t simple equivalents for concepts.

I’ve been looking into software development for the XO – especially since the dominant language in the development of Sugar is Python. Of interest is the Develop activity that will allow programming on the laptop itself, applying the same Sugariness to the process. Note that bzr is (to be?) built in!

I really don’t see how running Windows XP on these laptops, even at $3 per “user”, makes sense. There is so much innovation here that it would be a complete waste to run a partially disabled version of a 6 year old operating system on the XO. Microsoft, 6 years old refers to the users, not the software! For more on this, see Jonathan Carter’s rant.

The Community

Antoine’s getting a local grassroots community going – see and the mailing list (links on the site). Here’s hoping we can get MORE than one of these in South Africa!

Adobe to Open Source Flex

Here‘s the announcement that Adobe is intending to release Flex as Open Source.


Adobe is announcing plans to open source Flex under the Mozilla Public License (MPL). This includes not only the source to the ActionScript components from the Flex SDK, which have been available in source code form with the SDK since Flex 2 was released, but also includes the Java source code for the ActionScript and MXML compilers, the ActionScript debugger and the core ActionScript libraries from the SDK. The Flex SDK includes all of the components needed to create Flex applications that run in any browser – on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux and on now on the desktop using “Apollo”.

Developers can use the Flex SDK to freely develop and deploy Flex applications using either Adobe Flex Builder or an IDE of their choice.

In other news, “Open Source” is now also a verb…

Ubuntu-ZA Competition

Update: Congratulations Jan Kroeze who wins the book and Michael Chadbourne who wins the t-shirt!

Update: deadline extended to 4 May

Ubuntu Book Cover
At the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Mountain View, I got a copy of The Official Ubuntu Book autographed by some of the authors, as a prize for a competition to promote participation in the Ubuntu South Africa LoCoTeam. Since nobody has proposed a competition, here goes…

The book is autographed by Mako Hill, Jono Bacon and Ivan Krstic. To win this prize, you need to make a page for yourself on the Ubuntu South Africa wiki, telling us a little about yourself – how long you have used Ubuntu and what for – and some way to contact you. Continue reading ‘Ubuntu-ZA Competition’

Ubuntu – the concept [video]

Quirk eMarketing shows this Ford advert as a demonstration of the philosophy of Ubuntu… a humourous view of the transition in South African society over the last decade and a half.

Getting Open Source into the Enterprise

Seth Godin has a good insight on why open source is a hard sell to CEOs:

Almost no new idea meets the needs of shareholders and CEOs. That’s because most of all they need predictability and apparent freedom from risk.

He talks about perceived needs, usually served by relationships with big proprietary software companies, vs actual needs – where open source usually does a very good job.

So how can one challenge somebody’s perception of their own needs?

OLPC, Ubuntu at Digital Freedom Expo

One Laptop Per Child is a catchy name, and I know the intention is to convey the concept of each child having a laptop, but the more accurate description would be One Child Per Laptop… :-)

C|Net has some photos of the OLPC XO laptop in actual use – by children, not geeks!

It looks like I’ll be helping at the OLPC stand at UWC’s Digital Freedom Exposition next week, which looks like a very exciting event with speakers including:

Creative Commons founder Prof Lawrence Lessig, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, HP’s Open Source & Linux Chief Technologist Bdale Garbee, Co-founder of the Apache Software Foundation and CTO of Brian Behlendorf, Free and Open Source Software Entrepreneur and instructor in Computing Systems at MIT Philip Greenspun, Founder of Freedom to Innovate SA Bob Jolliffe, CEO of iCommons Heather Ford, Open Academic Publication specialist Eve Gray, Sun Microsystems Regional Director Education & Research for EMEA Todd Korth, Free Software in Education AJ Venter , and Free Software researcher and First Monday founder Rishab Ghosh, Novel SA MD Stafford Masie, UWC Rector Prof Brian O’Connell and Premier of the Western Cape Ebrahim Rasool.

I’ll also be facilitating an Ubuntu South Africa BOF at the event – one day after Feisty releases, so the plan is to give CDs out as fast as we can burn them…

GeekDinner – my 2c

Much has been written about the recent Cape Town GeekDinner. As Jonathan Carter mentioned, I did a brief plug for the Ubuntu South Africa community.

We probably have a huge number of Ubuntu users in South Africa, but not much visibility of the LoCoTeam community, so it’s great to get a chance to spread the word. Some have complained that it’s not easy to stumble across the LoCoTeam reference on and so they were unaware that we have a local community. Now you know! Check it out and see how you can participate…