Monday, February 04, 2008

XO Thread

Dean Shareski wrote Are We Spoiled after receiving his XO. Some discussion followed. I enjoyed this comment from my friend Albertas, who was one of the original SchoolTool developers, but now is priced out of my budget and has built a nice new house in the suburbs for his wife and two young kids:

When I was a teenager (early ’90s), I was into computers. I went to a computer class in a youth center, learned to use a computer, play DOS games, program Basic and Pascal. I bought and studied books about programming, almost religiously read the two Russian computer magazines. But I did not own a computer, even though were not so rare in my environment: 2 out of 12 classmates of mine had a PC at home. I dreamed about having a computer I could program on. I would *kill* for something like XO.

I owned the first machine when I was a second year CS student (1998). It was a 386DX40 with 4 megs of RAM — a system that could easily be 8 years old at the time. It was a lot of fun to learn Linux on it, set up sound, X Window, dial-up networking, UUCP mail, Lithuanian fonts and keyboard, hack on little programs, write HOWTOs about what I figured out.

If the XO laptops will reach their target audience in Africa and South America, I’m sure there will be thousands of kids for whom it will be the biggest and most significant gift in their lives. A passport into our world, gateway into their future.

I also discovered that I'd missed Sylvia's essential Top Ten Checklist for G1G1 Reviews, which you should also read if you haven't yet. At some subsequent point I found this post by David Crossland, which quotes gnash (the free Flash implementation that ships with the XO) a mailing list post from developer John Gilmore that gives you some good background around the politics around Flash on the XO. It is more complicated than you think, and not for technical reasons:
Rob wrote: > Personally, many of the reported problems are all because the OLPC > project can't ship the codecs Gnash needs. I am so sick of the codec > issue I can barely talk. If the OLPC project can't ship the codecs Gnash > needs, then screw it, ship Adobe, and don't bother those of use trying > to fix the problem. I tried to talk them into adding Codec Buddy from > Fedora to solve this problem with zero success. Sorry, Rob; I know the codec software patent issue is painful bullshit that nobody should have to deal with. Since it's government-imposed bullshit, I think it falls into the "taxes" part of the unavoidable "death and taxes". Having just done front-line support for OLPC, how about a suggestion then: When there's a codec issue, put up a message, in the web page display, that says it's a codec issue. Don't just end up with a grey rectangle. If you want to be fancy, say which codec is being used that we don't support, and why we don't support it. At the moment all that most people know is, "It doesn't work." They direct their frustration at OLPC, Browse, or Gnash because that's what's in front of them. If we took the trouble to tell them, "This video won't display because the corrupt US government issued patent 123,456,797 on codec C and the company is demanding X cents per flash player, which we haven't paid", a much more informed discussion could take place. And the gnash team could tell the codec problems from the real ActionScript implementation bugs. And maybe after OLPC saw this, they would let you add a "Click here if you're European and have sane laws about software patents" link, which would install the proper codec. John PS: OLPC can't ship Adobe flash; they don't have a license to do so. The one you download from the Adobe website doesn't come with permission to share it. Maybe they could get one by negotiation; but they prefer to stand in solidarity with the free software community. PPS: The target audience of G1G1 was kids, many of whom seem to be in thrall to the brightly colored pyramid scheme. Here's an excerpt from one support ticket, after they installed Adobe Flash with help from a techie friend, but didn't figure out how to uninstall gnash: "No resolution. I am waiting and hoping you can get someone to 'add a very simple walk-through', as you have stated below. My daughter does not want to use her XO since she is unable to get into Webkins and Learning Today." I tried it; the homepage works, but clicking "New Member" leads to a Flash "Loading..." page that never goes away. If this is a Flash version issue, hey, how about Gnash putting up a message about *that* very common problem, too?

Finally, in regards to Dean's original question, I think complacency is as big an issue as being spoiled, although they kind of go together. If you don't see the need to innovate in the basic desktop paradigm of the computer, that is, if you're willing to accept that innovation in the basic operating system interface stopped around 2001, and that all subsequent innovation is going to run in a browser and use Javascript and Flash, then you don't have any motivation to put up with the considerable warts created by trying to reinvent the user experience on the fly, as OLPC finds itself doing.

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