Wednesday, July 26, 2006

India rejects 'One Laptop per Child'

The Times of India has reported that India's Ministry of Human Resource Development has rejected the idea of One Laptop per Child.


The HRD ministry has rejected the idea of 'one-laptop-per-child' (OLPC) being aggressively marketed by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Laboratory. "India must not allow itself to be used for experimentation with children in this area," the ministry has said.

The ministry's detailed objection based on technical, social and financial grounds was sent to the Planning Commission two weeks ago.

It is not clear what the technical objections are; there was nothing mentioned in the article. As for me, I have my own personal reservations about OLPC's approach. At this time, I am not convinced that they are headed in the right direction. Why? Here's something from OLPC's FAQ page:

What is the $100 Laptop, really?

The proposed $100 machine will be a Linux-based, with a dual-mode display—both a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white reflective and sunlight-readable at 3× the resolution. The laptop will have a 500MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory; it will not have a hard disk, but it will have four USB ports. The laptops will have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a mesh network; each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. The laptops will use innovative power (including wind-up) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data.

Here's my concern: considering that the target users are young children (6-12 year olds, if I'm not mistaken), how wise is it to make a machine that is run by a full-blown operating system? Do we expect these kids to "play system administrators" on their laptops? Do we expect them to know how to patch their systems when there are security vulnerabilities in the operating system or application programs? Or are they planning to have professional system administrators push the updates to these laptops? Is that really going to succeed?

I am not picking on Linux just because I am a Sun employee. I will still have the same reservations even if they use Solaris as the operating system. The fact is all operating systems will have their own vulnerabilities even if these operating systems are stripped down of unnecessary services. And when these vulnerabilities are discovered, they have to be dealt with. Besides, no matter what operating system is used, there are still application programs that will also have their own vulnerabilities.

OLPC is talking about deploying millions of these laptops. Wouldn't it be better if they are engineered in such a way that the end users will no longer have to worry about securing their individual laptops?

I think it makes sense to study the viability of a thin client model -- a device that has no operating system to begin with. That way, there is nothing to maintain on the laptop itself.

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