Archive/Current Events/2008-12-09

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Sugar Digest

1. Bonjour: I gave the keynote at the first Netbook World Summit in Paris (See Presentations). The opening welcome was delivered by Hervé Yahi, CEO of Mandriva, and indeed Mandriva was well represented at the congress. Yahi asked, "How big will the netbook market become?" He (and almost every subsequent speaker) broke the market down into two categories: a primary tool in the emerging market and a second device in the developed world. In my talk, I suggested that the netbook was at the forefront of the emerging cultural and technological battle between telephony and computing—i.e., the culture of service and the culture of creation. Inviting children into the community of learners and problem-solvers is the opportunity afforded by giving them access to computation and "learning as a verb".

OLPC's Bastien Guéry (of Haiti-deployment fame; soon moving to Lebanon) and Patrick Ferran, director of a educational netbook company, Gdium.com (a MIPS platform running Mandriva), held a panel discussion on education. Collaboration was the hot topic—the Sugar model is attractive even in the developed world. And, as always, how to change the culture of learning in schools remains a conundrum.

The netbook hardware session featured a panel with representatives from ASUS, Samsung, Qualcomm, Lenovo, and MSI. ASUS is interested in offering a network bundle with web storage and Linux application bundles. Their original idea was the laptop as a second PC, but now they are also targeted to the first PC market. Samsung has entered the netbook market recently and has big, but ambiguous plans. They are also thinking hard about connectivity. (It is ironic that roughly 15-years ago, when I was on the IBM mobile computing advisory board, I tried to convince them to make connectivity a product differentiator. Their response was to sell off their Global connectivity business. Sigh.) Qualcomm, which has 30% of the handset market, announced a new chipset to compete in the netbook space. Their chips provide connectivity and the multimedia functionality in phones. The always connect/always on nature of a phone is the kind of experience that they are trying to bring to the netbook market. Its focus is a mobile device—moving towards phone-like experience. Lenovo is game—they are thinking in terms of corporate buyers for a variety of categories, including education. MSI is a French OEM that makes the Wind product. They are explicitly targeting education in the emerging market. Their Wind Box is a fanless, screenless brick, which may have potential for a low-end school server.

The moderator asked what are the criteria for choosing for the OS on these devices: Lenovo sees predominately new users to date. (Although the world-wide economic slowdown is playing a role as well.) Their education customers are Linux-focused; consumers are asking for both. Qualcomm sees this as a new market—the best of the wireless world and the best of the laptop world—a new device. Samsung thinks the user wants something simple for the second PC—web browsing. The first-PC market is looking for "standard" systems (XP). ASUS is also splitting their strategy between emerging and mature markets. Everyone agreed that netbooks are not cannibalizing the traditional notebook market (but they are having an impact on price). But also everyone seems to be drifting towards larger screens, a hard disk, and Windows—along with a higher price. "10 inches is where the market is going." The retail market is asking for XP, but the professional and vertical markets, e.g., education are asking for Linux.

The follow-on panel was pretty depressing: Are netbooks mobile device or PC replacements. Mozilla opined always-on connectivity is essential, the browser is the application and nothing else is important, e.g., the OS doesn't matter and running non-web-based applications is "old think". In contradiction to this, "Linux has momentum and it is a place for innovation; you innovate because you can." gOS, who makes "Cloud", a Linux distribution that focuses on a browser, with an application "doc" in the browser. It is a "dual boot" machine, but the Linux distribution is instant on to a browser. Xandros argued that "Economics drives adoption of Linux from the OEM perspective"; but now there is a race in the application space. There is a 20-Euro difference in the OEM price between XP and Linux, but that is not enough to convince an OEM to switch away from the mainstream. The netbook started as a new type of device, but now it is marketed as a mini-laptop, which is why Windows is getting a larger market share: the consumer as consumer.

The final panel featured service providers. SFR (www.sfr.com) has its base of customers using their services for web access from mobile phones; they have recently expanded into the netbook (specifically, the eeePC market) by offering 3G connectivity. Comwax (www.comwax.com) offers a touch-based ("iPhone on a notebook") user experience—"always-on social networks" being the buzz phrase most often heard at the meeting. They tout lots of Sugar-like features: 1 click; unified contact list; and the seemingly ubiquitous application store. They'll be marketing through mobile carriers. gloBull (www.myglobull.com) focused their presentation on mobility and security. They have a secure boot that then launches a signed virtual environment—Windows or XP. (Sound familiar?)

A concluding presentation was given by IDC, a market research company, entitled "Netbook market opportunity: Hype or hope?" IDC believe that netbooks represent a big opportunity: 30 million units by 2012 (35% annual growth per year). (OLPC is only a very small consideration in their market projections. I guess they are playing wait and see if his prediction of 200 million XOs in 2009 running Windows will be realized.) Price and ease of use are considered the key contributions to the market share. (What does ease of use mean when we are talking about vanilla XP?) Intel and Microsoft have been very aggressive in marketing in EMEA (l'Europe, le Moyen-Orient (Middle East) et l'Afrique). In EMEA, the OS is rapidly switching to XP with big push in retail channels by Microsoft and 80% of shipments are to consumers as second laptops with laptop expectations for their netbooks. However, IDC sees one-to-one computing in education as a big opportunity—50% of all portable PCs sold to education by 2012 (but a small percentage of the overall netbook market). Telcos are beginning to enter the netbook market—in an effort to push mobile broadband. The netbook fits that role, with the added benefit that they pay a smaller subsidy per consumer. All of this is putting pricing pressure on traditional notebooks. The big surprise to me is the extent to which Europe is dominating the netbook market—I always thought they were a mobile phone culture.

The reception was held at the Paris Museum of Modern Art (MAM) where we had a private viewing of a Dufy retrospective and cocktails in the Matisse Room (See Dufy and Matisse).


Addendum:

I went to one last panel at the Open World Forum in Paris: Ensuring the sustainability of FLOSS developer communities and business ecosystems. The description looked promising: Research, education, industry, public bodies, end-users: how is FLOSS changing competition and cooperation behavior? What kind of governance and financial support are required to foster and optimize FLOSS ecosystems?

And the lineup of panelists seemed well chosen: Elmar Geese, Chairman, Linux Verband; Wang Huaimin, Professor, China National University of Defense Technology; Mike Milinkovich, Executive Director, Eclipse Foundation; Cedric Thomas, CEO, OW2 Consortium; and Anthony Wasserman, Executive Director, Center for Open Source Investigation, Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley.

I should have spent the afternoon at Musée D'Orsay. These guys had absolutely nothing to say about anything. No insight into FLOSS, organization, community, or sustainability. Nor did they have an answer to a simple prepared question directed to them—how to communicate about FLOSS to potential "customers"? They answered with nothing more sophisticated than business-school-101 sound bites: "make a strong business case." Yeah, and... I asked them to get concrete and got more of the same: "know your customer's decision-making criteria." It could have been sales people from any industry up there. Maybe that is a sign that free software has matured to the point where it is just another commodity. Sure doesn't feel that way from the trenches. Or maybe it is an indication that free software is lacking strong leadership in the areas of business and marketing. That seems closer to the truth. I will have to look elsewhere—to the community—for inspiration.


2. Threads: There have been a number of interesting discussions on the lists this week:

  • Luis Michelena and Daniel Ajoy have been in a dynamic discussion of new Turtle Art features driven by pedagogical features being voiced by teachers ([1] and [2])
  • Tomeu Vizoso has blogged about his experience walking the teachers in Uruguay through the process of building a "mind map" activity ([3]).
  • Martin Langhoff has started a thread in the laptop.org wiki regarding the school server Moodle design (XS Moodle design).

3. Looking for a project?: Tomeu has posted notes from the Sugar Camp brainstorming session regarding collaboration features for Sugar Activities. Lots of opportunities to get your start developing in Sugar (Roadmap Brainstorm).

4. Ouch: A harsh criticism of Sugar from a blogger can be found at My experience with OLPC in Tuvalu. I've extracted it in part below with some acknowledgements and rebuttals.

List of things wrong with OLPCs Operating System:
1. The connectivity metaphor on start up is inappropriate for people in areas where connectivity is a long way away. The OLPC is more useful to people in Tuvalu as a device for games, media and typing before it is for connecting to the Internet, so the connectivity interface should not be the main focus at start up.

Why is the community metaphor inappropriate? It is available regardless of Internet connectivity—95% of the schools in Peru are off the Internet, and yet the children and their teachers can use Sugar to collaborate within the community. It makes a very efficient use of whatever Internet resources are available.

2. That said, we were using wireless connectivity in the Government building, but the OLPCs holding that connection was flaky. We had no trouble keeping a connection to the network on the Windows machines, but the OLPCs kept dropping. Placing a Wireless modem in the room with us seemed to help the situation. Another problem relating to connectivity was the amount of time some of the OLPCs took to connect. Some didn’t at all. All of them need clearer indication of progress in connecting.

Improved wireless stability remains a goal, but the situation is much improved from Sugar 0.71, which seems to be the version of Sugar being tested (See #4 below).

3. The pop up menu for the operating system is very frustrating and seems to be affected by processing. Sometimes it is slow to initiate and even slower to disappear. I think its better to use the key on the keyboard instead, and turn off the mouse over feature.

I will conject that this comment is in regard to the hover menus. They come up instantly from a right-mouse click. But this seemed not be discoverable in the first three hours of use. A keyboard shortcut may also be a good addition.

4. Need better preloaders for the software. When we clicked an icon the software takes a while to load. Sometimes the loader dialog that says “starting” would take too long to appear. The icon does appear in the pie chart indicating active applications, perhaps something in that graphic could more effectively illustrate it as loading.

The "pie chart" comment suggests that the evaluation was done on a very old version of Sugar—pre 0.82—which makes it somewhat irrelevant. Launch time is better, but we have a ways to go.

5. The browser must have tabbed browsing! If I missed where it was, then it is too hard to find. There was no right click option on any of the OLPC we were using, and I don’t know if there is meant to be. If the tabbed browsing relies on a right click then we were thwarted. Also, I think the browser needs work on its layout and features. The address bar takes up too much room and for some unknown reason wants to display the page name instead of the URL. The URL is for more useful in terms of information, and having to click into the address bar just to check the URL is just silly. The scroll bars are too small, and especially noticeable when managing a website with a scrolling window inside it, like the edit view of a wiki. We didn’t try any ajax, java or flash – but I hope they are good to go!

Tabs in the Browse Activity are still on the wish list. The full address is revealed if you click in the address bar—again, apparently not readily discoverable in the first 3 hours. Java and Flash are compatible with Sugar, but there may well be performance issues on the OLPC-XO.

6. I couldn’t work out how to manage files. I could download PDFs ok, but it was a bit of a fumble to display them, and I have no idea how to save them. I tried plugging in a USB but as far as I could tell, no new icon appeared offering me access, and nowhere in the browser of the PDF display could I find how to save the file to the USB.

The Browse Activity offers to open the Journal (where downloaded files are stored), but perhaps not in the older builds. The USB shows up in the Journal, but perhaps it should show up in the Frame as well, as a notification when it is inserted?

7. I wonder about the touch pad. I am used to using them and use the one on this Asus all the time, but seeing as the OLPCs are so ready to think outside the square, lets rethink the touch pad. If you didn’t have the touch pad, you could have so much more room for keys! Apart from supplying a small mouse (which is infinitely more easy to use) I wonder if the game controllers in the screen could substitute a mouse, as could smart use of the tab key. That little blue dial that IBM used in the middle of their keyboard had potential I thought.

We have more work to do on keyboard shortcuts, especially on non-OLPC hardware. As regards the OLPC-XO tablet, 'nough said.

8. I reckon the operating system and software should completely change, and I’d suggest something like what Asus has done. I can certainly appreciate the innovations that I’ve found so far, but the extreme difference between the OLPC and other OS is too great, and will affect the usefulness of the laptops… think of it like Vista.. you are causing stress and lock in by being so different. The OLPC is not the place to experiment if your primary objective is to offer people in poorer economies to access and exploit opportunities. Of course there is the new opportunity of servicing and administering the OLPCs themselves, but that’s hardly sustainable and I hope it wasn’t planned for!

Growing community and jobs around Sugar is an important part of the roadmap. But also providing a platform that enhances learning is our primary concern. We've not proved our case yet, but there is plenty of evidence that a vanilla XP-approach is not having a positve impact on learning and hence is truly not a wise investment—"unlimited potential", indeed.

Community jams, meet-ups, and meetings

5. FUDCon will be held at MIT (Cambridge, MA) 9–11 January. If you can attend, please *SIGN UP* on the wiki page: FUDConF11 and please recommend topics for the hackfest. Paul Frields is available to answer any questions you may have.

6. Kevin Cole reports that video from the last OLPC Learning Club DC is available at xolaptop bee.

7. There will be a Skolelinux/Debian-Edu developer gathering in Trondheim, Norway 23–25 January 2009 (See 2009-01 Trondheim).

8. There will be a Python for Teachers workshop at Pycon in Chicago in late March, 2009.

Tech Talk

9. SOAS: Simon Peter reports that he has updated Sbuntu (Sugar for Ubuntu Live USB) to Ubuntu 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex). This should resolve many issues that were present in the earlier version. (Sbuntu). Please report Sbuntu issues to Peter and issues related to usb-creator to USB creator.

Morgan Collett has put some updated Sugar packages in the Ubuntu Sugar Team's PPA: Sugar archive. He is updating them to include support for Network Manager 0.7, so that Neighborhood View will support connecting to access points again.

Sugar Labs

10. Self-organizing map (SOM): Gary Martin has generated another SOM from the past week of discussion on the IAEP mailing list (Please see SOM).