David Beers has an interesting post about the One Laptop Per Child project (linked from the Carnival or the Mobilists this week, check out the other posts too, lots of good stuff!). It’s amazing how much you can agree in principal but disagree in specifics. David is arguing that mobile phones would be a much more reasonable form for the project than laptops. In particular he picks up this quote from Branko Collin as a good summary of the position:
Don’t para-drop these things. The OLPC needs to be a 99.9% local project to succeed. Currently it seems to be largely a Western project.
I totally agree! Definitely and 100 percent. So how do you make a project local? By giving folks full fledged solutions to problems and opportunities that are happening in some environment which very few people on the implementation side really understand? No, I think the right answer is to give folks the simple and primary tools they need to build their own solutions, and to allow the people who understand the constraints and target environment to build the solutions on their own. The ideas embodied by the Fab Lab projects serve as an excellent role model I think. Give a person a fish vs teach a person to fish.
Before I thought things through that way I had said the same thing about handsets and the OLPC project a few times. That the OLPC project should be using handsets not laptops, it seemed obvious. I would like to publicly retract that statement. Cellular networks are a horrible place to try to build new, novel, well-situated solutions. The the networks and hardware are not open, the communications subject to regulation and restrictions, and the solutions fundamentally tied to someone elses business model. Fuck, experienced entrepreneurs in developed countries can’t manage to get their applications out. If we really want to help out other countries in terms of building out their infrastructure do we want to lead them into tying their solutions to carrier networks? Do we want them forced to do Symbian C++ programming if they want access to non-JSR mediated functionality? Should they need to have to send their handset in for test enablement before they can try to use their own apps on real hardware?
It’s the openness that’s the key, not the current form factor. If the project is successful the hardware can mutate as necessary to fill new niches to follow the solutions. But an evolution that follows solutions instead of following money is only possible if the people working at the endpoints can hack up the stuff they need to. Now that I’m looking at the setup as a whole, and the potential long term to bootstrap a technical self-service environment tied to the Internet but decentralized and unregulated, I think we could use the project here in the US as well.