Why should this even be necessary?

Posted on by Chris Warburton
Finally, whatever phallic brained suit at Intel started the Classmate PC project has listened to the extremely poor public relations messages and they have joined the OLPC board. This is still not a reversal of their Classmate PC policy though, which is an incredible shame. Intel’s aggressive marketing to the countries as soon as OLPC representatives have left is disgraceful. The competition between Intel and AMD in the x86 processor market should not cause a multinational, multi-billion pound corporation to undercut a non-profit organisation by using its existing financial might to sell a competing product for less than it costs to make solely because the non-profit chose to use AMD’s low-power Geode processor line due to its suitability for the project (Geodes have been the best in this field for years anyway, which is why AMD bought them a while back).

On a related note I got to see one of the OLPC’s XO laptops at LUGRadio Live 2007, and they are even more impressive in the flesh. If anyone out there still believes that the ‘choice’ argument between the XO and the Classmate is valid then they need to actually do some research about the topic. The XO laptop is a means to an end, that end being the advancement of education around the globe, especially in areas without enough schools and teachers, and certainly without enough money to buy sufficient textbooks for every subject for their children, and then keep replacing them as they are damaged or made obsolete. It was designed to fit the goals of the project, and every area where current technology is not yet advanced enough to meet these lofty goals they set about inventing it themselves (the screens themselves are a really remarkable achievement, and whichever consumer laptop manufacturer gets its hands on that technology first is going to sell a LOT of laptops, not to mention the 802.11s standard Wifi mesh networking, the lithium ferrous phosphate battery technology and power management abilities (the whole system can go into and out of full suspend mode within milliseconds, ie. between key presses for a touch-typist, the processor and graphics chips can shut down to leave the display running, for instance if the laptop is being used in its high-resolution ebook mode where no computation needs to be done until pages are turned, etc.)). What is the goal of the Classmate PC? To sell Intel processors. How does it do this? It takes a modern PC (when I say modern I mean without any of the OLPC advances), then they rip stuff out of it until it costs $200, then sell it for $100 to make sure they beat the XO. The result is an extremely under-powered machine (the machines are slightly more powerful than the XOs, but they run off-the-shelf software like Windows and Mandriva Linux, which the machine is too slow to run comfortably, rather than the XO’s completely custom Fedora spin, which is designed specifically for the low power environment), the batteries last 2 hours rather than the XO’s 8, they can only be charged from an electrical socket (there are loads of those in the villages of developing countries), they don’t have any kind of hermetic sealing (probably due to heat issues from the clocked-up Intel processors) so they can’t even run underwater for the rainy season and will clog with dust in the dry season, the screens become completely unreadable in any kind of outdoor sunlight (the issue with current laptops that the XO solved), but this is arguing on technical merits. The biggest problem with the Classmate is that it exists. The OLPC project is working in the kind of space where the precise technical merits of the solution don’t matter as much as the standardisation does. For instance, the World Wide Web standardised on the HTML. There are problems with HTML (which is why XHTML and things have come about), but if multiple systems were used from the beginning then the whole Internet thing would have been stalled by politics, developer complaints, attempts at producing even more standards, many proprietary, and generally everything would be a hell of a lot worse than it is now by only using one standard, even though it is obviously not perfect (nothing is). The very fact that there is a Classmate PC seriously damages the efforts of anyone in that area. This is of course making no mention of the fact that the OLPC project is completely independent of any ties within those industries it may effect, and so are in a perfect position to pick and choose the best technologies for the job, whilst Intel is at the very core of the industry and thus should be the last choice as sole designer of a standard, since they’d end up making it favour themselves over their competitors despite the technical merits of their systems, and it would end up being proprietary, closed and unchangeable. Well guess what happened with the Classmate?

I think I’ll end my rant here, but the essence of it is this: Choice may be put on a golden pedestal in the USA, but such capitalism is not suitable for every issue in the world. For a person who’s only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I don’t hear anyone in the UK complaining that they don’t have a choice of NHSs, because in that area it is better to have one standard and gradually hack away its problems, rather than making competing systems. Another example would be the train service compared to the bus service, train tickets can be bought anywhere and will work on any train regardless of the company running it, whereas I never buy a return bus ticket because I never know whether the bus I want to return on will accept it. As long as the standard is fully open then anyone can come along and improve it (by starting a new train company, for example), and we are not stuck with a certain company’s marketing strategy rather than a way to fix a problem in the world. Remember, competition is a clever way to encourage people towards a goal (making the world a better place in the case of capitalism), but it is easy to focus on the system and break the legs of every other competitor to become the winner by default, whilst the whole point of the system (approaching the finishing line, Utopia) has been thrown out of the window.

PS: Yes this applies to the MicrosoftXML format too.