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Squeak in Extremadura, the OLPC project, and Patent Saber-Rattling
Saturday, November 18 2006 @ 10:00 AM EST

I was going to put this is News Picks, until I saw that Slashdot had an article from MSN on how useless the One Laptop Per Child project is. Of course, I would expect MSN would say that, and Microsoft has no trouble finding people in the media willing to express what I think Microsoft would like said. But please take a look at this video of a program already in use in Extremadura, Spain, one of the poorest areas of the country, that will also be included in OLPC, called Squeak. Watch what the children are able to do, how they can learn even on their own because of the design of the software. Yes. On their own. I dare anyone to view it and write such nonsense ever again.

I know. He still will. I believe if you look on Google, you can find his motive expressed by the author himself in a video. It will help you to understand why I refuse to link to any of his articles.

The Squeak video is a year old, but here's something newer about Squeak EToys, by Alan Kay:

Squeak Etoys was inspired by LOGO, PARC-Smalltalk, Hypercard, and starLOGO. It is a media-rich authoring environment with a simple powerful scripted object model for many kinds of objects created by end-users that runs on many platforms, and is free and open source. It includes 2D and 3D graphics, images, text, particles, pres-entations, web-pages, videos, sound and MIDI, etc. It includes the ability to share desktops with other Etoy users in real-time, so many forms of immersive mentoring and play can be done over the Internet. It is multilingual, runs on more than 20 platforms bit-identically, and has been successfully used in USA, Europe, South America, Japan, Korea, India, Nepal, and elsewhere.

I hope everyone at Microsoft notices from the paragraph how important it is to be inspired by other programmers' prior work, because that is precisely what is wrong with software patents, among many other things. They make ideas unusable, and that curtails innovation. Because there are large parts of the world that currently do not allow software patents, I think you could posit that software patents are endangering the US's ability to compete, and it will only get worse.

That's one reason why the GPL strives to create a patent-free zone, so programmers can work to create masterpieces like Squeak that benefit society.

What a concept. Benefit society.

And here is the paper, Squeak Etoys, Children and Learning [PDF]. And the Wiki, with a screenshot of EToys running on OLPC.

So, Microsoft. I have a question for you. What are you doing to match this? You have buckets of money, after all. Surely you can do something. I already know about PocketOffice on a cellphone. Puh-lease. Here's the description from the OLPC homepage for inspiration:

Introducing the children's laptop from One Laptop per Child — a potent learning tool created expressly for the world's poorest children living in its most remote environments. The laptop was designed collaboratively by experts from both academia and industry, bringing to bear both extraordinary talent and many decades of collective field experience in every aspect of this non-profit humanitarian project. The result is a unique harmony of form and function; a flexible, ultra low-cost, power-efficient, responsive, and durable machine with which nations of the emerging world can leapfrog decades of development—immediately transforming the content and quality of their children's learning.

Before you answer, note that the teachers and children using this software also can contribute their ideas and innovations, and they can because they can dig as deep as they please into the software source code, modify it (thank you, Steve Jobs for letting the license change to the Apache license) to make it do more precisely what they want it to do, and share those modifications, and because it's interactive software that inspires creativity. It's FOSS. That is precisely what Microsoft can't match -- the openness. Closed, proprietary software won't let do what FOSS lets you do. Those benefits are available to all users of FOSS, worldwide, by the way. And you don't have to be a child to love it. But if you are a parent, do you see how you and your kids could have some fun together with Squeak? And you don't have to be a geek to make it work. Here. You can download it for free. There are tutorials on that site. I'd rather my kids played with Squeak than watch cartoons or play violent video games. Wouldn't you?

I enjoyed personally from the video the little girl who said Squeak introduced her to computers and she found out she likes them. Is that not what education is supposed to do for children? As Nicholas Negroponte has said, it's an education project, not a laptop project. By the way, OLPC just won Popular Science's "Best of What's New" award for its innovative screen design:

In addition to cutting costs—by designing lower-priced circuitry and using an open-source operating system, among other things—it also improved on the standard laptop by slashing the machine’s energy use by 90 percent, ideal for a device that could be charged by hand-cranked power in rural villages. The biggest power hog is typically the display, so engineers invented a new LCD. Each pixel has one part that reflects light and one that lets light pass through a colored filter. Turn on the LED behind the screen, and a full-color image appears as rays stream through the tinted filters. Turn it off to save power, and light bounces off the reflective parts of the pixels to form a black-and-white image perfect for e-mail or e-textbooks. Even more efficient, the CPU suspends itself when the image is static. Expect the tech in full-price laptops in a few years.

See what happens when you innovate, instead of denigrating others' work or trying to shut down the creative work of others with vicious patent strategies?

And the rest of us need to understand fully and completely that when Steve Ballmer starts threatening to tax Linux to pay for some illusory Microsoft "IP" -- whatever that is -- it thinks it might have but won't identify specifically, it is this kind of innovative humanitarian work it is endangering also. There are programmers working on the OLPC project who are doing it on company time, you know. Paid programmers. OLPC runs on Red Hat Linux (and you can help). Those programmers are the kind Microsoft would like to sue, and the Novell-Microsoft patent agreement threatens to do just that. It sets them up as patent defendants. I hope Novell gives deeper thought to what it is doing.

Please think it over, everyone, and decide just how much damage you are willing to let software patents do, just to benefit a few companies, who by the way made their billions at a time when there were no software patents to get in *their* way, and at the expense of everyone else on the planet with them.

And please look at the Squeak video and the children's faces as they talk about Squeak before you decide.

P.S. Psst. They already built the first model. $130. And here's a cluestick from the FAQ for the worrywarts that fixate on how networking can't possibly happen:

When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh ether network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. Connectivity to the Internet will be from the mesh through gateways at the schools. (We are working with the local governments and the private sector regarding how to reduce the cost of Internet access. The Motoman project is an example of how you can make a little connectivity go a very long way.)

See? You MSN types worried for nothing. And to help you not to write further Silly Stuff about OLPC, here's their latest news page.

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