May 2011 Archives

Hacker Public Radio - HPR 0728

I recently collaborated on a netcast for Hacker Public Radio (HPR). It would appear that my itch for time shifting and technical dialogue is still in me. However, in this particular episode Dismal Science and I discussed issues related to Race, Sex and Open Source. We did not prepare any show notes.

Enjoy the conversation HPR 0728
For anyone who is unfamiliar with HPR, Hacker Public Radio is an podcast that releases shows every weekday Monday through Friday. Our shows are produced by the community and can be on any topic that would be interesting to hackers.

Please consider contributing a show for a good cause. The content does not have to be technical in nature, but it must be interesting and thought provoking to the community. The show is by and for the community. Is this not what "radio" was designed for in the beginning?

Unfortunately, I do not have the conversation in ogg format. Early morning snafu with the recording, we'll use one of my asterisk boxes next time.

Apple for education is a misnomer

SAN FRANCISCO - FEBRUARY 01:  Apple Computer c...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

I have always wondered how hardware companies get selected as the preferred vendor for academics.  Some years ago, I encountered an Apple IIc which was used in a Physics lab in a junior college where I was studying. How did this machine arrive at such a destination?
Perhaps there was an existing vendor contract with that particular  school. If you were to ask the average computer user circa 1980, Apple was considered a learning platform for children.

In fact, children often grabbed their parents and demanded that one be purchased for them. What are the criteria for robust academic computing? I would offer a few thoughts, as I'm certain that there are no standard well described guidelines.

Some Basic Academic Computing Tenets:

I cannot state with any certainty that Apple offered any of these tenets with its older computers.
One could argue that these concepts were in the minds of people like Wozniak. Perhaps they were, but I would assert that they are not at all tenets of the modern era Cupertino company.

If these are not the tenets of Apple; why do people constantly talk about using Apple products for assistive technology for special needs patients? I have also heard the same rhetoric in favor of using Apple products for elderly computer users.  What I find odd about this tendency is that the use case seems in direct contrast to these claims.

The current rage is the tablet and apparently the expectation is that tablets will soon render netbooks and desktop computers obsolete.  Before I get into the tablet phenomenon, I want to revisit the tenets.

Open Learning -
Intended to foster scholastic mastery through the use of application software (ie word processor, spreadsheets, etc).  The ability to save documents for posterity without the risk of vendor lock-in. Deprecated file formats are in direct contrast to the open learning principle.

Sharing Ideas -
When you open and free exchange of facts and data are expected. It is difficult to argue that Digital Rights Management (DRM) often makes sharing ideas difficult.  Apple is perhaps the most well known for its gestapo actions in the area of DRM. Their virtual marketplace iTunes is the prime example. If you wish to give your friends copies of music, lectures or whatever from their digital marketplace you do so with expectation that the files may not be readable by your friends. This seems odd considering you have already paid for the content. However, you really are not the owner, but merely leasing the content. I suppose the owner will always be the copyright holder.

Free and Open Source Software -
Although Apple has made a fair amount of cash using the Mach kernel which was basis for Darwin and of course OSX. Darwin's BSD lineage aside, there really isn't much free software in the wilds that has been fostered by the Cupertino company. If you look at the Darwin web site it would appear that there really is not active development on the project. Ironically, Apple boasts "200+ Open Source Projects ship with OSX".  I wonder how many of these upstream projects ever see contribution from Apple devs?  My guess would be not very many.

Standards Based or Open Hardware - 
In truth, I am very impressed with the appearance of most appliances produced by the Cupertino company.  They really are works of art and quite pleasing to the eye. Taking a more pragmatic approach to the utility of these devices is another matter.  Apple was perhaps the first company to release machines with IEEE 1394 (Firewire) standard, which is surely commendable.  In general, their devices are compliant and provide most of what is needed. I say most, as their first tablet offering did not include USB or Bluetooth support. Mind boggling for a company that released Firewire ports on their machines in the mid '90's. Heh, maybe not so mind boggling as no one knew much about Firewire in the '90's go figure ;-)
It really must be about the vendor lock-in strategy. Buy from our software stack or have nothing at all. The other alternative is to hack your very expensive piece of art and risk turning it into a door stop or paper weight.

Zero Barriers to Entry-
If we really want our students or elderly to use Apple products, we must forewarn them that it will be a very expensive proposition. Sure you can get PowerPC based machine and run Linux on it. However, I'm talking about more modern better supported hardware. Most of it is cost prohibitive.

Now let us get back to the idea that tablet computing will drastically revolutionize the way average people use computers. I emphasize average computer user since these use cases typically define mainstream computer usage. I would argue most tablet users are generally power users or computer hobbyists. Additionally, most tablets are feature based appliances. You can surf the Interweb, send email and other limited activities.  Multimedia seems to be the growing desire of most computer users. High definition video is something that an under powered ARM processor may not be able to handle.  Perhaps I've got it all wrong. I'm just not convinced that under powered tablet devices are going to unseat laptop and desktop machines.  I would think that smart phones are more attractive and pose a greater threat. Even smart phones do not have the feature rich applications and offer a limited computer experience. As the price of smart phones continue to drop, I would expect more mainstream computer users to adopt smart phones over tablets.

Academia and assistive technology computers require flexibility and they must provide superior value. High cost, closed silos are not the answer. 

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