Adobe is drop­ping Lin­ux sup­port for their Adobe AIR devel­op­ment plat­form. To be hon­est, I don’t real­ly care. Why? Because I’ve been care­ful enough to not tie my efforts to a pro­pri­etary platform.

I’ve had sev­er­al groups offer to write applications/activities for OLPC Aus­tralia using pro­pri­etary tools like AIR. I’ve dis­cour­aged them every time. Had we gone with the ‘con­ve­nient’ route and acqui­esced, we would have been in quite a spot of both­er right now. My pre­cious resources would have to be spent on port­ing or rewrit­ing all of that work, or just leav­ing it to bit-rot.

A beau­ty of Sug­ar and Lin­ux is that they are not depen­dent on a sin­gle enti­ty. We can devel­op with the con­fi­dence of know­ing that our code will con­tin­ue to work, or at least can be made to con­tin­ue to work in the face of under­ly­ing plat­form changes. This embod­ies our Core Prin­ci­ple #5, Free and Open.

Free and Open means that chil­dren can be con­tent cre­ators. The tele­vi­sion age rel­e­gat­ed chil­dren (and every­one, for that mat­ter) to just being con­sumers of con­tent. I have very fond child­hood mem­o­ries of attempts to counter that, but those efforts pale in com­par­i­son to the pos­si­bil­i­ties afford­ed to us today by mod­ern dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies. We now have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to prop­er­ly enable chil­dren to be in charge of their learn­ing. Edu­ca­tion becomes active, not pas­sive. There’s a rea­son why we refer to Sug­ar appli­ca­tions as activ­i­ties.

Grow­ing up in the 80s, my rec­ol­lec­tions are of a dynam­ic com­put­ing mar­ket. Machines like the ZX Spec­trum and the ear­ly Com­modore mod­els inspired a gen­er­a­tion of kids into learn­ing about how com­put­ers work. By exten­sion, that sparked inter­est in the sci­ences: math­e­mat­ics, physics, engi­neer­ing, etc.. Those machines were afford­able and quite open to the tin­ker­er. My first com­put­er (which from vague rec­ol­lec­tion was a Dick Smith VZ200) had only a BASIC inter­preter and 4k of mem­o­ry. We did­n’t pur­chase the option­al tape dri­ve, so I had to type my pro­grams in man­u­al­ly from the sup­plied book. Along the way, I taught myself how to make my own cus­tomi­sa­tions to the code. I did­n’t need to learn that skill, but I choose to take the oppor­tu­ni­ty pre­sent­ed to me.

Like­wise, I remem­ber (and still have in my pos­ses­sion, sad­ly with­out the machine) the detailed tech­ni­cal binders sup­plied with my IBM PC. I think I recog­nised ear­ly on that I was more inter­est­ed in soft­ware, because I did­n’t spend as much time on the sup­plied hard­ware schemat­ics and doc­u­men­ta­tion. How­ev­er, the option was there, and I could have made the choice to get more into hardware.

Those expe­ri­ences were very defin­ing parts of my life, help­ing to shape me into the Free Soft­ware, open stan­dards lov­ing per­son I am. Being able to get involved in tech­ni­cal devel­op­ment, at what­ev­er lev­el of my choos­ing, is some­thing I was able to expe­ri­ence from a very ear­ly age. I was able to be active, not just con­sume. As I have writ­ten about before, even the king of pro­pri­etary soft­ware and ven­dor lock-in him­self, Bill Gates, has acknowl­edged a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence as a tip­ping point in his life.

With this in mind, I wor­ry about the super­fi­cial solu­tions being pro­mot­ed in the edu­ca­tion space. A recent arti­cle on the BBC’s Click laments that chil­dren are becom­ing “dig­i­tal­ly illit­er­ate”. Most of the solu­tions pro­posed in the arti­cle (and attached video) are high­ly pro­pri­etary, being based on plat­forms such as Microsoft­’s Win­dows and Xbox. The lone stand­out appears to be the won­der­ful-look­ing Rasp­ber­ry Pi device, which is based on Lin­ux and Free Software.

It is dis­ap­point­ing that the same organ­i­sa­tion that had the fore­sight to give us the BBC Com­put­er Lit­er­a­cy Project (with the BBC Micro as its cen­tre­piece) now appears to have dis­re­gard­ed a key ben­e­fit of that pro­gramme. By pro­vid­ing the most advanced BASIC inter­preter of the time, the BBC Micro was well suit­ed to edu­ca­tion. Sophis­ti­cat­ed appli­ca­tions could be writ­ten in an inter­pret­ed lan­guage that could be inspect­ed and mod­i­fied by anyone.

Code is like any oth­er form of work, whether it be a doc­u­ment, art­work, music or some­thing else. From a per­son­al per­spec­tive, I want to be able to access (read and mod­i­fy) my work at any time. From an eth­i­cal per­spec­tive, we owe it to our chil­dren to ensure that they con­tin­ue to have this right. From a soci­etal per­spec­tive, we need to ensure that our cul­ture can per­se­vere through the ages. I have pre­vi­ous­ly demon­strat­ed how dig­i­tal preser­va­tion can dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce the longevi­ty of infor­ma­tion, com­par­ing a still-leg­i­ble thou­sand-year-old book against its ‘mod­ern’ laserdisc coun­ter­part that became vir­tu­al­ly unde­ci­pher­able after only six­teen years. I have also explained how this prob­lem presents a real and present dan­ger to the free­doms (at least in demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­tries) that we take for granted.

Back in the world of code, at least, things are look­ing up. The Inter­net is head­ing towards HTML5/JavaScript, and even Microsoft and Adobe are fol­low­ing suit. This rais­es some inter­est­ing con­sid­er­a­tions for Sug­ar. Maybe we need to be think­ing of writ­ing edu­ca­tion­al activ­i­ties in HTML5, like those at tinygames? Going even fur­ther, per­haps we should be think­ing about inte­grat­ing HTML5 more close­ly into the Sug­ar framework?

I’ll fin­ish with a snip­pet from a speech giv­en by US Pres­i­dent Oba­ma in March (thanks to Greg DeKoenigs­berg for bring­ing it to the atten­tion of the community):

We’re work­ing to make sure every school has a 21st-cen­tu­ry cur­ricu­lum like you do. And in the same way that we invest­ed in the sci­ence and research that led to the break­throughs like the Inter­net, I’m call­ing for invest­ments in edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy that will help cre­ate dig­i­tal tutors that are as effec­tive as per­son­al tutors, and edu­ca­tion­al soft­ware that’s as com­pelling as the best video game. I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teach­ing you some­thing oth­er than just blow­ing some­thing up.

Why ‘Free and Open’ matters / Sridhar Dhanapalan by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.