Friday, February 16 2007

Free as in “until we take it away from you”

Just to be clear, I think the “One Laptop Per Child” project is doomed to failure. That is, if the goal is “educating children”, I don’t think it’s going to produce a statistically significant improvement that justifies the expense. Perhaps that’s because all of the press accounts I’ve seen have allowed the sponsors to handwave away the quite serious issues of how they’ll be used.

To date, I have seen only one piece of software that provided significant educational value for children: Rocky’s Boots. I’m sure there have been a few others, but educational software is a tough market to succeed in commercially, and it has characteristics that make it “less than attractive” for the typical open-source developer.

Given the target demographic for OBPC, there simply won’t be a software market; they’ll get whatever open-source stuff is ported, plus whatever is commissioned by the local government educrats.

And that local government will have the power to brick each and every one of those laptops at any time (section 8.19):

We provide such a service for interested countries to enable on the laptops. It works by running, as a privileged process that cannot be disabled or terminated even by the root user, an anti-theft daemon which detects Internet access, and performs a call-home request – no more than once a day – to the country’s anti-theft servers. In so doing, it is able to securely use NTP to set the machine RTC to the current time, and then obtain a cryptographic lease to keep running for some amount of time, e.g. 21 days. The lease duration is controlled by each country.



To address the case where a stolen machine is used as a personal computer but not connected to the Internet, the anti-theft daemon will shut down and lock the machine if its cryptographic lease ever expires. In other words, if the country operates with 21-day leases, a normal, non-stolen laptop will get the lease extended by 21 days each day it connects to the Internet. But if the machine does not connect to the Internet for 21 days, it will shut down and lock.

[Update: I just spent half an hour browsing the OLPC web site and wiki, and all I could find about the actual educational toolsmithing for the project was words to the effect of “we’re Papert-izing the world!”, which tells me precisely dick.]