GNU/Linux Horizons: How OLPC May Impact the Future
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by Mario Miyojim for the Reallylinux.com opinion section
The future: OLPC project and LAMP repercussions
The GNU Manifesto and the Linux kernel development are two important
and unpredictable events that took place within the past quarter
century, tightly coupled with the internet explosion. However, I propose that we are beginning a new phase of the
Open-Source saga, a particularly bright phase, with the hardware development of the OLPC project.
Recently, Nicholas Negroponte
announced that the OLPC now can run Windows on it, whereby the initial
market may have doubled. If 1/4 of the population of the world (assumed
as 5 billion) are not adults, 1/3 of those are older than 5 and younger
than 12 years old, and 1/2 of those are the ones to benefit from the
OLPC, we are looking at market of 5 billion / 24, or about 200 million
children. That market will probably be reached in about three years.
Over these years, children who are two or older will get into the age
bracket considered, so that number tends do grow.
There will be spinoffs from the OLPC project,
making use of the display and energy savings features of its current
hardware. I predict that a laptop similar to the OLPC will be used by
writers, journalists, scriptwriters and other people who rely on text,
due to its low-power reflective daylight fairly large display, which is
the closest an electronic gadget can get to a book. Many people still
today can only concentrate on documents printed on paper, due to this
There will be other surprising, unpredictable applications for the OLPC
features, I believe.
In the developing countries business environments, the LAMP middleware will be a major force, especially for ad hoc
point-of-sale applications (pharmacies, car service stations,
restaurants, etc.) because the small businesses cannot afford the big
ones (Oracle, SAS, Lotus Notes, etc.). With LAMP becoming influential,
technical schools are going to teach PHP programming, and there will be
crash training courses for the current Windows-only programmers. There
will be specialists setting up Windows-only applications running under Wine
or a virtual machine on a case by case basis as an antidote to the
Windows Vista influence, as well as to protect them against software
Hardware prices are a great barrier to the growth of computer
usage in developing countries. For instance, in Brazil, a 4 GB RAM,
dual CPU, 250 GB hard drive server from Dell
costs $2200, while the final price for a lean PC sold locally
is around $1200. How powerful the movement and the influence on society if there was a start to at least one native
manufacturer (to assemble affordable hardware) in each country. Ofcourse costs and overhead would be kept low precisely because of
the cost of software today being greater than the cost of hardware. Therefore, these systems would be
preinstalled with GNU/Linux and open-source applications for professional use
(as distinct from entertainment, multimedia use).
I propose that the big assemblers like Dell, HP, Toshiba have their market
restricted to wealthy countries, because they maintain the current price
levels. The lean and mean assemblers from Asia, Africa or South America
may come to invade the U.S. and Europe, like Toyota and Honda did with
The present: GNU/Linux preinstallsMicrosoft has grown
powerful due to Windows preinstalls on OEM computers (see this article). GNU/Linux is
poised to take a slice of that market on merit only. A major computer
OEM, Dell, is preparing to start a new sales segment: PCs with GNU/Linux preinstalled.
If buyers require the ability to run Windows-only applications that
they depend on, Dell should preinstall a virtualization framework on
Ubuntu, so that the user can install any version of Windows by oneself
according tosupplied instructions. That would be a big plus that will
attract buyers who are willing to migrate to GNU/Linux but cannot due
to this one hurdle: vital applications.
Dell played an unpleasant trick on potential customers in the
past, by announcing OEM GNU/Linux computers, then hiding the ad links
and charging a higher price than for Windows computers. But that was
when Dell was afraid to lose the benefits from helping Microsoft's
business plan. This time, the circumstances are quite different: Dell
is afraid of losing sales further and not afraid of Microsoft scare
tactics; GNU/Linux is more polished and ready than ever to be accepted
by common users. If Dell succeeds, then its competitors will have to do
A profession that is now taking shape is that of the family consultant:
a professional who maintains family and friends' computers remotely by
means of remote access tools. In emergency situations, the family
consultant will visit the patient's home. A family consultant will be a
professional akin to the family doctor of times past, but for the
computers and appliances of the home. These will be more helpful than
the corporate support technicians, more reliable, and less expensive,
too. For a couple of years, their major task will probably be to
install on some computers a GNU/Linux + virtualizer
+ Windows (3.1, 95, 98, NT4, 2k, XP) combination, to prolong their
functional environment and prevent migration to Windows Vista, which is
costly and problematic. By doing so, they will save each home a lot of
money and hassles. Some of the family consultants will interact with
domestic hardware assemblers who, together, may end up becoming the
local competition for Dell.
The past: Silent Knowledgeable Adopters in Europe My opinions
in the web forums facing a vociferous pro-Windows minority of posters
brought me in contact with a representative of a silent and
knowledgeable open-source adopter community. Dr. Alain Empain has a
degree in Botany and a Ph.D. in Ecology, and became a Bryologist at the
National Botanic Garden of Belgium in 1980.
He lives in the country among cows, sheep, horses, chicken,
forests, caves, cliffs.
He grows his own vegetables, and has a pond he dug himself. In his
property there is a small stream, and a passive solar house he built
himself with family help.
Dr. Empain found the Botanic Garden without any Informatics, so it
took him the period from 1980 to 85 to introduce computers into the
research activity. In 1986 he connected a few PC terminals to a Unix
Thereafter, he dedicated full time to software development, hardware
maintenance, UNIX server deployment, databases for 12 years. By the end
of 1993, he began to play with Linux, and everything changed. He
installed the first Linux web server in the Federal Government domain
and probably fully switched the first government department to Linux by
The evolution of their IT structure until 1999 is summarized on the
Belgium Botanic Garden web site.
In 2000, he left his occupation for 6 years to recycle into
Bioinformatics in Molecular Genetics
(something like a sabatical) in his University. He put together a
Grid-Computer with all his Linux servers, on which a 6-month
computational job for a single CPU--comparison between the full human
and bovine genomes--took less than a week.
Now he is back at the Botanic Garden, to supervise the servers and work on his collected samples from tropical Africa.
During his absence, the servers have received a great boost in Linux-only NAS etc. However, most new users have been trained earlier on Windows, so the Linux workstations are now diluted.
Dr. Empain plans to run the Botanic Garden Library client under Wine or to run Windows under VMWare, temporarily.
A newly acquired, expensive camera mounted atop new Olympus microscopes only works under Windows, and he sees that as a problem.
As he succeeded to use a new high-resolution [1.3 Mpixel] webcam to take pictures from a microscope,
he is now developing a gui for it.
In this manner, he will be able to replace an expensive camera with a
Windows-only interface by a much cheaper hi-resolution webcam, with an open-source
interface. In Dr. Empain's Taxbench web page, there is phrase that
stands out as the prime motivation to many open-source projects: It would be a pity to switch to Microsoft just to use a camera; it is something that everyone who reads this should deeply think about.
This camera project reminds me of a patchwork of open-source
applications I did for a simulator to print color graphs and tables on
a $150 inkjet printer instead of a Windows-driven $6000 color laser
printer in 1997, which gave me the belief that open-source software can
always provide an affordable solution for any problem.
Despite the dominance of Windows workstations in the Botanic Garden, OpenOffice is now the de-facto standard, as well as Firefox and Thunderbird. This represents a significant victory of the FOSS movement, in the circumstances.
You could say that Dr. Empain is a unique person, and that there
must be just a few or none like him in each country, regarding the
dedication to practical applications of GNU/Linux and open-source
software in each one's field of activity. However, such individuals
exert a strong influence on younger people, with a life-long, cascading
effect; that is what will bring an ever wider adoption of open-source
software in the world.
What I am doing while I wait for the futureI am practicing
with virtualization now, using VMWare, and am pleased with the
flexibility one would achieve by running a Windows virtual machine
together with a regular GNU/Linux distribution. It can serve the high
purpose of allowing a painless migration process from Windows to
GNU/Linux for the next 2 to 3 years.
I did not yet have a chance to play with the KVM project or the Xen project, which also look interesting.
A group of people and I are also preparing to start up an industry
that will provide affordable hardware, software and services for
third-world countries, that can be a driving force of that future.
This article published by permission from Mario Miyojim, with special thanks to Dr. Alain Empain.
For further information and reading regarding Dr. Empain's projects.
This opinion piece should not be construed as factual information. It contains the opinions and personal
experiences of the author at the time of publication and where applicable includes the references to other
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