Free and Open matters

Why ‘Free and Open’ matters

Adobe is drop­ping Linux sup­port for their Adobe AIR devel­op­ment plat­form. To be hon­est, I don’t really care. Why? Because I’ve been care­ful enough to not tie my efforts to a pro­pri­et­ary platform.

I’ve had sev­eral groups offer to write applications/​activities for OLPC Aus­tralia using pro­pri­et­ary tools like AIR. I’ve dis­cour­aged them every time. Had we gone with the ‘con­veni­ent’ route and acqui­esced, we would have been in quite a spot of bother right now. My pre­cious resources would have to be spent on port­ing or rewrit­ing all of that work, or just leav­ing it to bit-​​rot.

A beauty of Sugar and Linux is that they are not depend­ent on a single entity. We can develop with the con­fid­ence of know­ing that our code will con­tinue to work, or at least can be made to con­tinue to work in the face of under­ly­ing plat­form changes. This embod­ies our Core Prin­ciple #5, Free and Open.

Free and Open means that chil­dren can be con­tent cre­at­ors. The tele­vi­sion age releg­ated chil­dren (and every­one, for that mat­ter) to just being con­sumers of con­tent. I have very fond child­hood memor­ies of attempts to counter that, but those efforts pale in com­par­ison to the pos­sib­il­it­ies afforded to us today by mod­ern digital tech­no­lo­gies. We now have the oppor­tun­ity to prop­erly enable chil­dren to be in charge of their learn­ing. Edu­ca­tion becomes act­ive, not pass­ive. There’s a reason why we refer to Sugar applic­a­tions as activ­it­ies.

Grow­ing up in the 80s, my recol­lec­tions are of a dynamic com­put­ing mar­ket. Machines like the ZX Spec­trum and the early Com­modore mod­els inspired a gen­er­a­tion of kids into learn­ing about how com­puters work. By exten­sion, that sparked interest in the sci­ences: math­em­at­ics, phys­ics, engin­eer­ing, etc.. Those machines were afford­able and quite open to the tinkerer. My first com­puter (which from vague recol­lec­tion was a Dick Smith VZ200) had only a BASIC inter­preter and 4k of memory. We didn’t pur­chase the optional tape drive, so I had to type my pro­grams in manu­ally from the sup­plied book. Along the way, I taught myself how to make my own cus­tom­isa­tions to the code. I didn’t need to learn that skill, but I choose to take the oppor­tun­ity presen­ted to me.

Like­wise, I remem­ber (and still have in my pos­ses­sion, sadly without the machine) the detailed tech­nical bind­ers sup­plied with my IBM PC. I think I recog­nised early on that I was more inter­ested in soft­ware, because I didn’t spend as much time on the sup­plied hard­ware schem­at­ics and doc­u­ment­a­tion. How­ever, the option was there, and I could have made the choice to get more into hardware.

Those exper­i­ences were very defin­ing parts of my life, help­ing to shape me into the Free Soft­ware, open stand­ards lov­ing per­son I am. Being able to get involved in tech­nical devel­op­ment, at whatever level of my choos­ing, is some­thing I was able to exper­i­ence from a very early age. I was able to be act­ive, not just con­sume. As I have writ­ten about before, even the king of pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware and vendor lock-​​in him­self, Bill Gates, has acknow­ledged a sim­ilar exper­i­ence as a tip­ping point in his life.

With this in mind, I worry about the super­fi­cial solu­tions being pro­moted in the edu­ca­tion space. A recent art­icle on the BBC’s Click laments that chil­dren are becom­ing “digit­ally illit­er­ate”. Most of the solu­tions pro­posed in the art­icle (and attached video) are highly pro­pri­et­ary, being based on plat­forms such as Microsoft’s Win­dows and Xbox. The lone standout appears to be the wonderful-​​looking Rasp­berry Pi device, which is based on Linux and Free Software.

It is dis­ap­point­ing that the same organ­isa­tion that had the foresight to give us the BBC Com­puter Lit­er­acy Pro­ject (with the BBC Micro as its centrepiece) now appears to have dis­reg­arded a key bene­fit of that pro­gramme. By provid­ing the most advanced BASIC inter­preter of the time, the BBC Micro was well suited to edu­ca­tion. Soph­ist­ic­ated applic­a­tions could be writ­ten in an inter­preted lan­guage that could be inspec­ted and mod­i­fied by anyone.

Code is like any other form of work, whether it be a doc­u­ment, art­work, music or some­thing else. From a per­sonal per­spect­ive, I want to be able to access (read and modify) my work at any time. From an eth­ical per­spect­ive, we owe it to our chil­dren to ensure that they con­tinue to have this right. From a soci­etal per­spect­ive, we need to ensure that our cul­ture can per­severe through the ages. I have pre­vi­ously demon­strated how digital pre­ser­va­tion can dra­mat­ic­ally reduce the longev­ity of inform­a­tion, com­par­ing a still-​​legible thousand-​​year-​​old book against its ‘mod­ern’ laser­disc coun­ter­part that became vir­tu­ally unde­cipher­able after only six­teen years. I have also explained how this prob­lem presents a real and present danger to the freedoms (at least in demo­cratic coun­tries) that we take for granted.

Back in the world of code, at least, things are look­ing up. The Inter­net is head­ing towards HTML5/​JavaScript, and even Microsoft and Adobe are fol­low­ing suit. This raises some inter­est­ing con­sid­er­a­tions for Sugar. Maybe we need to be think­ing of writ­ing edu­ca­tional activ­it­ies in HTML5, like those at tinygames? Going even fur­ther, per­haps we should be think­ing about integ­rat­ing HTML5 more closely into the Sugar framework?

I’ll fin­ish with a snip­pet from a speech given by US Pres­id­ent Obama in March (thanks to Greg DeKoenigs­berg for bring­ing it to the atten­tion of the community):

We’re work­ing to make sure every school has a 21st-​​century cur­riculum like you do. And in the same way that we inves­ted in the sci­ence and research that led to the break­throughs like the Inter­net, I’m call­ing for invest­ments in edu­ca­tional tech­no­logy that will help cre­ate digital tutors that are as effect­ive as per­sonal tutors, and edu­ca­tional soft­ware that’s as com­pel­ling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teach­ing you some­thing other than just blow­ing some­thing up.