Bridge Toubling Water

OK. I have to admit to having a soft spot for the One Lapbox Per Bairn project up at the wonk shul on the Charles. Hence my interest was grabbed this morning by an article about its sorta director speaking at the latest TED conference on the subject. [Link] So I immediately went and observed the video of his presentation. [Link]

I am pleased to report that the mixed signals that come out from and about the project are just as ambiguous as ever. Nicholas Negroponte (“Black Bridge Nick”) has indeed stepped down as director of the project but is staying on as something-or-other.

And the article says that Negroponte wants to make the OLPC lapbox into something that everyone copies but what he talks about at TED is making something no one will steal. Once more we have to wonder at the chemical dependencies of the traditional media.

Nonetheless, this ambiguity – some would call it blatant contradiction – engendered some consideration of the relationship between the OLPC and the netbook phenomena. The CNET article claims that Negroponte claims that netbook manufacturers have imitated the wrong things. Since his presentation mentions not netbooks nor any manufacturer except the one making the OLPC lapboxes we have to wonder if combusting shrubbery was involved here?

The commonality of the netbook and the OLPC laptop, both of the genre herein labeled itty bitty lap box, is how it differs from what is around and available. Negroponte and his OLPC program epitomized this in their antithesis to the Yankee republic’s Every Child Left Behind program that reduces the American educational apparat from baby sitters to robots. Simply put, the OLPC programs transcends the education organizational paradigm by putting learning back in the hands of students and returning teachers to teaching, not what is mandated but what is asked. Simply put, the reinvention of the log.

The netbook is similar. It is a statement of what people want in the way of an information device. Think of it as occupying an environmental niche intermediary between one’s principal computer, whether laptop or desktop, and one’s contemporary equivalent of the hand axe, the cellular telephone. And since it lies in between these two, the price should be in between as well.

Cellular phones cost but have no price, at least in the Yankee republic. That is, we pay nothing directly for cellular phones but indirectly through peonage to the provider. And except for those who have too little common sense and too much fashion nonsense, or some other dementia, we only pay $500-$600 for laptops or desktops, so the price of the netbook shouldn’t be more than $250-$300. In fact, if OLPC can build their box for $138 in its next incarnation, then we have to ask why a netbook should cost more than $200?

The problem is that the manufacturers don’t like this. They have tried magnificently to convince Joe Consumer that a netbook should, because of its extreme miniaturization, cost twice or three times a laptop. Here lies the root of their dislike for OLPC for it makes of them liars, scalawags, and bounders, true scions of post Adam Smith corporate oligarchy.

So my hat is off to Black Bridge Nick and his windwill nuking. His cause is just and we who want to do real work will owe him much for educating children and ourselves. Even if he has struck a perfidious deal with MegaHard.

The nature of the netbook, as something as close to disposable as a cellular phone, is that we do not want to have to put a kilodollar of software on it, especially if it gets busted and we are stuck with licenses frozen in place on junk. This, in my mind is the best reason for open software on the netbook, consistency of economy, and it is a point than Black Bridge Nick should ponder well.