Throwing money at not so shiny and worthy technology

A few weeks ago, BeirutSpring posted this opinion peace about the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the ministry of Telecom and Intel to provide Linux based tablets to Lebanese students. Since his post got the attention of telecom Minister Sehnaoui, I though it would be important to voice my very different opinion on the matter and show my support to the project and Minister Sehnaoui.

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Minister Sehnaoui, Intel or the Lebanese government. I have been working in the IT industry for as long as I can remember and I am a promoter of Open Source software methodology and ideology.

If you’re too lazy to read the initial blog post, here is a short summary. It argues that Minister Sehnaoui has made a deal with Intel to buy obscure tablets running obscure software for students in Lebanon. Instead, they should get the latest and shiniest consumer electronics product such as an iPad or an Android-based tablet. The blog post implies that the Intel tablets are running expensive proprietary software whose only aim is to put money and control in the hands of Intel and giving bragging rights to Minister Sehnaoui. He claims that these tablets have no ecosystem or content and are therefore “junk” that students will ignore and throw away.

First, it’s important to note that these tablets are running Mandriva, which is a distribution of Linux. Linux is a free and Open Source operating system. So all these claims about proprietary and expensive software defies reality and fact. Even with the remote possibility that there is some proprietary education software on these tablets, the bulk of the software remains Open Source and free. Intel is not a software or service company and therefore is not interested in selling content or services for a fee to the end-users of these tablets. The blog post happily ignores the fact that the software that is running on iPads and Android tablets is designed specifically to maximize profits of Apple & Google through technology/service lock-in rather than to provide education. As an example, Apple and Google get a cut from each application or book sold through their devices. The large ecosystems that come with these products are useless to young and potentially poor students who don’t have credit cards or disposable income. How the author argues that the minister should have instead purchased tablets that target rich adults living in developed countries by trying to sell them commercial services & applications is mindboggling.

Intel launched the World Ahead program along with it’s announcement of the ClassmatePC in 2006. The project was spawned after talks between Intel and OLPC broke down (OLPC decided not to use Intel chips). Intel didn’t want to miss out on this market and therefore started it’s own project. It addresses the exact same market as the OLPC and has the exact same objective: make technology and the Internet more accessible to third world countries. This is done through the context of getting cheap hardware in the hands of young students using the classroom as a medium of delivery. Therefore, the whole ecosystem is built around principles such as low hardware costs, zero end-user costs and high education content. If Minister Sehnaoui’s main objective from this project was to create some PR and bragging rights for himself, then he would have purchased the “cool” iPads or Kindles. Minister Sehnaoui decided to buy the boring product that would get young students connected and educated. Instead of receiving praise for such an initiative, he gets scolded for not getting the “cool” consumer products.

The benefits of putting Open Source platforms and software in the hands of young students in combination with an Internet connection are undeniable. Open platforms such as Linux give students the capability to create content independently and without having to give a single dollar to any large corporation. Combining that with an Internet connection allows them to communicate and develop their ideas and projects. These two elements in conjunction form a catalyst for education and innovation.

Minister Sehnaoui should be commended for this investment and should be encouraged to do more work around promoting Open Source in Lebanon on three main levels, government, education and private sector. The BRIC nations have been huge benefactors of Open Source to fuel their rapid economic development; perhaps it’s time Lebanon started looking into it more seriously?