Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Business and convergent technologies 22 – enabling technologies and technology leapfrogging

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on December 31, 2009

I said at the end of Business and Convergent Technologies 21 that my next posting in this series would be an open letter to the United Nations, and more particularly to the UN-GAID, the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (where ICT stands for Information and Communications Technology). I will write that, but I feel compelled in a way to respond first to some online group messages that were shared with me from fellow members of a group I participate in that focuses on the arts, poetry and the humanities. I have raised several core issues with that group that I also delve into here in this series, and in the blog in general as to expanding inclusion and opportunities to participate and share. In previous postings I have touched on issues of more effectively including and enabling people from the less developed and bottom of the pyramid countries, and I have touched on issues of including and enabling people who face disabilities and other barriers to their entry into the ubiquitous computing and communications community.

The group itself that I cite here, set up by Manuel Marino might not seem at first like the obvious place to post and elicit feedback on what can sometimes be seen as primarily technical issues, but in this the technology is simply an enabling capability – where it serves our needs in reaching out to communicate and share, and to create value. That has to involve every group and type of group in helping to lower their barriers to wider inclusion. So I saw and still see groups like this one as crucial to include and as a significant source of value and insight.

At the risk of picking up here in the middle of a conversation, I start with a posting I added to that group

• “Thank you Bruce, for your thoughtful response to my posting.

“You highlight one of the greatest benefits to this new and emerging technology in the empowerment and inclusion it brings to so many who are connected. The problem is that we are in danger of continuing a have and have not situation for a great many peoples, and with way too many left out. My experience living in third world countries and in dealing with the United Nations and some of its agencies really brings this home for me.

“I initially posted to this group precisely because this is not the type of issue usually covered here, but it is one that we need input on from a great many directions — the arts included. In this, we need to find ways to include more. Part of this is in lowering costs for equipment and access, but learning curve issues, languages included and a great many other issues enter in here too — plus some of the same technologies that have empowered you and probably more along those lines as well. Part of the challenge is in thinking through the issues and opportunities and in setting goals and priorities for what to do first and now. We are, after all, going through a transition period now in the development and implementation of all of this new capability and it would be easier to build with wider inclusion than to add that in later. The have and have not barriers are too high already.

“Thank you and happy holidays to you and your family from me and mine.”

I want to share some of the feedback and ongoing discussion from this group and use that as a basis for making a few more general observations. Joshua posted:

• “You may be familiar with the Ubuntu project(s), aimed at producing a free-as-in-information and free-as-in-beer operating system and suite of software tools that will run on the cheapest and most obsolete hardware and can be easily translated (without learning anything beyond a simple text editor) to any language on the planet. Accessibility is another big push. The project would be receptive, and I would be also, if you wish to contact me off-list.”

Brandon followed this with:

• “That has never been my experience. My experience is that Linuxes tend to run old *laptop* hardware poorly, because the video drivers were often for weird, proprietary GPUs that the Linuxers of the period didn’t want to deal with. 3 years ago when I tried to put Linux on a 24MB Windows 95 era laptop with only a 2GB HD, I found that mainstream Linux distros were too piggish to manage it, and the streamlined / best working solution was to simply stick with Windows 95. Although there are some Linux distros that concentrate on being tiny, at the expense of other features, the mainstream distros like Ubuntu continue on a trajectory of bloat that precludes old machines, same as the rest of the computer industry. If you dig at it long enough, you come to realize how limited the testing resources of the open source industry are, and why they must inevitably fail to work on divergent, obsolescent HW profiles. Not enough geeks who think it’s fun to do the gruntwork.

“Linux is better for desktops with NVIDIA graphics that aren’t too old.”

Joshua replied with:

• “That has never been my experience. Ubuntu can run just fine with *no* hard drive, off of a Live CD. If you run it off a 2GB USB pen drive, you can have persistent user files. The philosophy of Ubuntu *really is* what I stated.

“More: http://www.ubuntu.com/community/ubuntustory/philosophy

“But this really isn’t the place, and I invite the OP to contact me for more.”

Linux is one of the prime movers in the open software movement, and is an enabler for many, many software developers and users where the boundary between those groups can really blur. I add that CD’s and USB-2 connectible flash drives and similar can be tremendously enabling, and both as portable repositories of personal document and other files and as hard drive alternatives for use as software platforms. I have never tried running a complete operating system off of a devise like a flash drive and would wonder about partitioning problems and getting any native to the machine operating system to play nicely with an external drive-based alternative but that is at least potentially an interesting approach. I have used flash drives to bring my own encryption and security software with me, and sometimes a few smaller apps that would load from the external drive into memory in the usual way and run from there as usual. But this is mostly a digression, as my reason for sharing these postings (somewhat excerpted) was not to delve into the specific tech details.

• This conversation snippet comes from an arts and humanities oriented community and not from a technology focused community. But these people also see a tremendous need to connect and share, and online and with access to all of the options and opportunities they can find and benefit from.
• Everything that goes into the evolving and emerging ubiquitous computing and communications environment I write of is still a work in progress and the pieces do not always work smoothly together, let alone with all of the preexisting technology infrastructure out there.
• Legacy systems happen and even really, really old and obsolete technology, and one reality that has to be accepted and dealt with in including the less developed and bottom of the pyramid world is a surplus of old that has to be accommodated – old hardware, old software, old and misaligned habits of usage and practice, some of which are set in law and enforced custom.
• There is pressure and a strongly perceived need to join and participate on an equal footing in this emerging world conversation and capability.
• People from all quarters have value and insight to share, and both on how the technology is used and on the technology itself. I add that the widest possible range of end-users in fact needs to be involved in all of the quality assurance and usability testing and in sharing their findings and experience if this technology is to actually meet our needs for as many of us as possible.

And this brings me to a concept I cited in the title to this posting – technology leapfrogging. It is not necessary for every individual or for every community to recapitulate every step, forward, sideways or backwards in the evolution of our computing and communications technology before they can enter into and use the state of the art. In fact the process of leapfrogging older, intermediate evolutionary steps can help more effectively define our current state of the art as meeting genuine needs. In this, involving new people and communities into this newly emerging global capability and conversation affords us an opportunity to view what we are doing, where we are and where we are going with fresh eyes.

This posting is in a real sense a prequel to the open letter to the United Nations that I have said I will be posting here. I am going to pick up on ideas begun here in this posting in that, and that really will be the next posting in this series.

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