[Beowulf] An OT patented rgb editorial rant, skip if you like...

Robert G. Brown rgb at phy.duke.edu
Thu Jan 25 06:09:38 PST 2007

On Thu, 25 Jan 2007, Chris Samuel wrote:

> # Well actually, my son with using Linux to surf the web, and play some
> # games from when he was 2.
> #
> # This was a stock install of Debian with the KDE Desktop. I just put the
> # icons on the desktop, and had it auto login for him. (he had some
> # trouble with a user name and a secure password).
> If we expect children of that age to learn multiple languages (something I've
> never managed to do, I can't even speak my own native tongue of Welsh) then
> why should they find different computer systems any more difficult ?

And FWIW, my three sons all grew up using Linux.  Their only major
complaint has been a) Even with Cedega and kernel-tainting Nvidia
drivers, running WoW (and other WinXX games) was then and remains now
painful.  For kids this is a major problem, alas; b) there have been a
handful of other thorns in the form of small applications -- one son has
friends who use AOLs chat to communicate, and gaim just hasn't worked
well for him as it lags the Win-native AOL client considerably; c) in
the old days, it was hard to find a decent Office-like suite, especially
a decent word processor.  They used Abiword, for example, which worked
"adequately" as a WP but sucked on the printer/driver front.

Since FC4 with a fully functional Open Office, the latter problem has
been resolved, but the game/small client issue remains.  So they are all
perfectly capable of using linux and can manage it for their schoolwork
just fine, but it is still lacking on the entertainment/casual use
front.  FC6 has several hundred games of its own, which is good, but as
far as kids are concerned the inability to "just run" over the counter
Windows-based games is a show stopper, far more important to them than
whether or not OOffice is adequate for writing papers, making graphs, or
doing presentations.

The same is more or less true of my near-luddite wife -- she gets by
with linux about the same way she'd get by with Windows.  In neither
case can she e.g. handle networking or any sort of problem (it had
better work automagically or else I have to step in and resolve the
problem).  As long as it does work automagically at the networking/login
level, hey, a browser is a browser, an email client is an email client,
and all she cares about is that these "just work".  And they do.

The biggest problem we've encountered in her case is similar to that of
the boys -- there are a few applications out there that she needs to run
that just plain require Windows, or Explorer.  Epocrates (a PDA-based
drug database) for example auto-updates through functions in Explorer
and will not work through any of the linux browsers, alas, although
there were rumors that they were going to at long last port to the Mac
(and maybe linux by inheritance).  However, this is too little too late
as her practice is about to install an EMR/PM system that will make this
irrelevant.  Similarly, she sometimes gets CD's containing clinical or
training information that are designed to launch automagically into a
step-through presentation from Windows.  However, a lot of these
recently have actually built the presentations on top of html or pdfs,
so that Linux can actually handle them fine IF one knows where to go to
find the toplevel link.  They lose that autolaunch capability that keeps
me out of the loop, but the loop can be closed.

Linux would in many ways make an excellent platform for schools these
days.  It can be secured and locked down far better than Windows, it is
much less vulnerable to viruses and spyware (the latter a critical issue
in schools where privacy and protection are major issues) and it comes
with pretty much a spanning set of software tools to support most of
what one would like to do OUTSIDE of the vast plethora of e.g. Reader
Rabbit Windows apps.  Again, if linux had an automagic winex/cedega
fully integrated with the distribution so that it would "just install"
Windows apps of this sort and they would "just run", life would be
grand.  Even without this, it is a good choice, but one that requires a
certain degree of expertise to set up and manage, to find the right
software, install it and support it (if necessary under an emulator).

It doesn't, however, provide most schools with much economic advantage.
Microsoft doesn't charge schools diddly for their OS or primary
software.  They don't have to.  If they charge $5 a seat, that's $3 of
pure additional profit (or more -- they usually only have to provide a
single media copy for the school and no longer have to market to the
school) and besides, all the machines the school bought CAME with
Windows so they've ALREADY made their profit at standard rates by
hooking into the supply chain much earlier where the school doesn't
realize that it really getting "nothing much" for free, for all that it
has to pay a lot less than other clients buying the same nothing much.
Still, Linux is likely to cost those schools "more", because offsite
management and setup may well be more expensive for Linux, because linux
does NOT just load up site-licensed learningware applications, and so

Again, a market just begging to be opened.  Linux-based learningware
COULD be set up so that it cost a school FAR LESS to build a linux-only
network.  In fact, it could be made so easy that it cost them nothing
but the offsite management package they'd have to buy anyway, or the
opportunity cost time of a computer-savvy teacher to run it.  Once again
one is trapped by the paradox that to make it happen, somebody has to
make money (at least a living!) doing it, and then it is no longer free.


> cheers,
> Chris

Robert G. Brown	                       http://www.phy.duke.edu/~rgb/
Duke University Dept. of Physics, Box 90305
Durham, N.C. 27708-0305
Phone: 1-919-660-2567  Fax: 919-660-2525     email:rgb at phy.duke.edu

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