On Sahana and the XO Laptop

[First published at GoToXO as On Sahana and the XO Laptop on January 3, 2008.]

I just sent an email to some folks in the Sahana project, as well as some of the IBMers involved with Sahana, in response to Sahana’s plan to recognize our family’s donation of two XO’s to the Sahana project. I’m publishing it here with only some small alterations, mostly the removal of some specific names.


Allow me to take the occasion of this post to provide some background on my donation of two XO’s to Sahana and to offer some thoughts on the XO and Sahana going forward.

I first learned that Sahana could run on the XO around November 20th. I asked Chamindra to send a copy of the picture showing same, and wrote my first post about the XO and the Sahana soon thereafter, A historic occasion, using the XO Laptop to run Sahana.

I said this was a “historic photo.” I said that because I was probably one of the few people in the world outside the Sahana project who had enough knowledge about both Sahana and the XO (which I first used briefly in early October when Mako lent me his for a few minutes when we were both at the k12 Open Minds Conference in Indianapolis) to fully appreciate the importance of this event.

I decided to donate an XO to Andrew Tridgell (Tridge) on December 6, as described in my blog post rsyncing the planet. One of the reasons I picked Tridge was that he was in Australia, and I wanted to get at least one XO within hailing range of Sri Lanka, knowing that Sahana Project members Don Cameron and Gavin Treadgold are based in Australia and New Zealand.

On December 6, I participated in a call with Chamindra, and some IBMers. Chamindra was seeking to get some more XO’s for use with Sahana, and was looking for a contact in the OLPC project. One of the IBMers suggested Jim Gettys, and I have since exchanged a couple of notes with Jim.

I queried Chamindra as to his needs and learned on December 13th that the most urgent need was for two XO’s so they could test the mesh networking capabilities. Though I was confident that it wouldn’t be hard to make the case that IBM should help the project meet this need, I knew that IBM was about to shut down for the rest of 2007. Since this was a case where time really was of the essence, I decided to pay for them myself, as described in my post of the same day, Two XO’s for XMAS for Sahana . See also Inexorable Logic: The XO Laptop and the Sahana Project.

Going forward I encourage all involved to do whatever they can to integrate the XO into Sahana as speedily as possible. I expect you are already doing this, but want to point out an additional reason for doing so, beyond the obvious benefits to Sahana.

I spent much of 2007 as part of my volunteer efforts working on promoting the use of open technologies such as open-source to help k12 educators within the United States in their vital mission. The key lessons I learned from this were:

There are over 17,000 school districts in the United States. I estimate that fewer than 170 (one percent) — and the number is probably much closer to 17 (one tenth of one percent) — of these districts have successfully made substantial progress in using open-source. The challenge is especially difficult in that this is retail marketing, district by district. For example, there are about ten different school districts within ten miles of my house.

The single greatest barrier to wider use of open technologies is the lack of well-documented case studies and success stories.

Success stories, or “customer references,” are gold when it comes to launching a new technology or product. For example, that’s why you see all those logos in an IBM presentation or at company’s web sites.

I first became aware of this almost a decade ago, back in the Jikes days. We got an award for our work on Jikes. I think one of the main reasons we got that award was because of a letter from a senior IBM executive in which he noted that Jikes was mentioned in virtually every presentation IBM gave about Open Source and Linux throughout 1999.

I know that the OLPC project will have its own success stories, but I also expect they will be slow in coming. I say this because I first encountered the difficulties of doing real innovation in education almost five decades ago, as described in my post On Education, Innovation, OLPC, And Open-Source . That is why I say “No area is harder to innovate in than education.”

I did my first programming around 1960, the same time I was employed part-time by a company (TMI) that was attempting real educational innovation. (TMI failed.) I truly believe the XO is a revolutionary development. I believe it to be the first signifcant chance to really improve education since the PLATO project of the early 1970’s. (PLATO failed, too). I also think the XO is the most important hardware/platform advance since the IBM PC.

Steve Mills, head of IBM’s Software Group (the world’s second-largest software company when viewed as a separate entity), once said that it is hard to sell software because you can’t touch it. Software is not tangible. He also often said that “code talks,” meaning that real code says volumes more than presentations or vaporware.

The XO has made software tangible. In particular it has made open-source software tangible. Pick up an XO and hold it in your hands and you are holding not only a profoundly innovative piece of hardware but some of the best code written in the last quarter-century. It talks. It also plays music, too. You can even write your own music using TamTam. The XO is a global platform for delivering open-source. Moreover, while this hardware platform meets the needs of the open-source software on which it is based, it isn’t adequate for running Windows, meaning that the XO starts out with a market share of 100 per cent in this new space.

One consequence of this is that real success in using the XO with Sahana will provide a visible demonstration of the power of the XO. No one else is working in this area, and no one could question its importance. For example, imagine what a different outcome would have resulted had a few thousand XO’s configured to run Sahana been deployed in the city of New Orleans before the arrival of Katrina.

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