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Freedom To Tinker, Freedom to Learn

In “The $100 Laptop Moves Closer to Reality,” the Wall St Journal discusses a project to provide very inexpensive laptops to millions of poor children around the world. I think its a great idea, and wish them the best of luck. Delivering internet connectivity to millions of poor children will be a world-altering project.

One thing that caught my eye was this:

Steve Jobs, Apple Computer Inc.’s chief executive, offered to provide free copies of the company’s operating system, OS X, for the machine, according to Seymour Papert, a professor emeritus at MIT who is one of the initiative’s founders. “We declined because it’s not open source,” says Dr. Papert, noting the designers want an operating system that can be tinkered with. An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

Tinkering is a great goal, but you only tinker with what you use. The Apple user interface is far and away the best on the market today. There are lots of people who have gained familiarity with other systems, but for someone who has never used a computer, I think the Mac wins hands-down.

As to tinkering with the OS, a great deal, but not all of it, is open source. Those parts are available for tinkering. (I haven’t seen an analysis of what fraction of the MacOS that is. Does one exist?)

So there’s a very interesting strategic tradeoff that’s being made here. “The designers want an operating system that can be tinkered with.” Do their customers? How many students will give up in disgust and frustration because they don’t have access to the complex, frustrating world of Linux support? How many will learn bad habits from the eight different file open dialogs on Red Hat?

Freedom to tinker with the programs you use is a very important part of learning to enhance things, rather than take them as tools handed down from on high. It’s a very important freedom that was defined by Ed Felten. It is not a cure-all, and it may be the wrong trade-off here. How many students giving up in frustration is worth one additional programmer?

6 comments on "Freedom To Tinker, Freedom to Learn"

  • beri says:

    While I enjoy the benefits of the Internet myself, I think that clean water, medical care and adequate nutrition would be more “world changing” than a computer for the poor children of the world. Abraham Maslow pointed out a long time ago that only after the necessities of life have been satisfied can one think about anything but survival.

  • Have to disagree with this. As an Apple user I have no more desire to fiddle around with OS software anymore than I want to change the oil in my car. However, I would like the ability to have experts I trust look into my computer to fix and maintain it. With an open system it is easier to obtain competitive bids.
    I think sending open source computers to poor countries is spectacular, it is just a question of time before the Ghanaian version of Steve Jobs figures out how to provide a solid user interface in a well designed box and sells that sucker for $50. Then the Ghanaians, or whoever, will do to Microsoft what Honda did to GM.

  • arthur says:

    From looking through From looking through Apple’s Darwin site, it looks like all of the underlying bits of OS X are in Darwin. It appears (e.g. Cocoa and Aqua) that it’s pretty much the yummy looking front end that’s not been opensourced.

  • Adam says:

    Internet access can help with clean water (by sharing knowledge about water purification and testing), medical care (by making expensive texts available online), and nutrition (by education). Is it a panacea? No.

  • Iang says:

    It’s not clear to me that the west is very good at shipping clean water, food and medical care to poor people. We have been trying since forever and have failed miserably.
    Why not try something we are good at – spreading the net?

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