How Linux could own the education market. I spent some time yesterday evening working on computers. They were contrasts to the extreme: One, a brand-spankin’ new 1 GHz AMD Duron system with 512MB of RAM and 80 GB of 7200-rpm storage (IDE, unfortunately–but for $800, what do you want?). The other was an elderly AST 486SX/25 running Windows 3.1 belonging to a local teacher who goes to my church.
She teaches kindergarten, and the AST used to be her home computer. When she bought a Compaq Presario a couple of years ago, she took the AST to school. It’s more useful there than in her basement, and there’d be no computer in her classroom if it weren’t for that.

I don’t understand why that is. As much as my sister jokes about it, we don’t exactly live in the ghetto. The school district has money, but it isn’t spending it on computers. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your point of view. The majority of people living in Oakville probably own home computers, so this probably isn’t contributing to the technology gap. But I wonder sometimes how things might have been if I’d been exposed to computers a few years earlier.

I was shocked how much I remembered about Windows 3.1. And I was able to figure out how to get her CD-ROM drive to play music CDs. Don’t ask me how; this was the first I’d messed with Windows 3.1 since 1994 and I’d prefer it stay that way–I was so impressed by Windows 3.1 that I’m one of the 12 people who actually went out and paid money for OS/2. I own actual, retail-box copies of OS/2 2.1, 3.0, and 4.0. And I remember distinctly thinking that her computer has enough memory to run OS/2 at least as well as it runs Windows 3.1…

I also remember distinctly thinking that my employer pays someone $15 a pound to haul better computers than hers away several times a year. We regard 486s as junk; low-end Pentiums may also go out, depending on whether the right person finds out about them beforehand. Usually they work just fine–the problem isn’t the computers, it’s people trying to run Internet Exploiter 6 and Office 2000 on them. They’d run Windows 95 and Office 95 perfectly fine.

But a lot of times we can’t give these old computers away because the licenses for the software that originally came with them are long gone. Old computers are useless without software, so no one would want them anyway.

Now, let me tell you something about kids. Kids don’t care much about the computers they use. As long as there’s software on them, they’ll use them. When I was a kid 20 years ago, I used Radio Shack TRS-80 computers at school. The next year, my family moved, and my new school had Commodore 64s. I couldn’t tell much difference. My next-door neighbor had a Radio Shack Color Computer. They were computers. The Commodores had better graphics, but from a usability standpoint, the biggest difference was where the cartridge slot was so you could change programs. Later on I took a summer class at the local junior college, learning about Apple IIs and IBM PCs. I adjusted smoothly. So did all the other kids in the class. Software was software.

Kids don’t care if the computer they’re using runs Windows or Mac OS or Linux. All they care about is whether there are cool programs to run.

So, businesses throw useless computers away, or they give useless computers to schools so they don’t have to pay someone to haul them away. And schools don’t generally know what to do with obsolete computers that lack software.

Linux won’t run fabulously on old 486s, but Debian with a lightweight window manager like IceWM will run OK. (Let’s face it, Windows 3.1 doesn’t run fabulously on them either–it crashes if you breathe wrong.) I know of a project to clone Oregon Trail on Linux. Great start. How about Sea Route to India? I remember playing that on C-64s at school. It may have been a type-in out of a magazine–I don’t remember where exactly it came from. In these violent times, Artillery might be too controversial, but it taught us early on about angles and forces. Artillery was an ancestor to games like Scorched Earth, but without the heavy-duty nukes. Close wasn’t good enough to win in Artillery. You had to be exact. And no blowing up the mountains between you and your opponents either. You had to figure out how to get over them.

But what about doing homework? By the time I was in the sixth grade, they were teaching us how to use word processors and databases and spreadsheets. AbiWord is a fabulous lightweight word processor. It gives you fonts and spell-checking and good page formatting. (I learned word processing on Bank Street Writer. AbiWord is a far, far cry from that. Frankly, I’d rather write a paper with vi than with Bank Street Writer.) Besides being feature-rich, AbiWord’s been lightning fast on every computer I’ve tried it on. Gnumeric is a nice, fast, capable spreadsheet. I don’t know of a free-form database, but I haven’t looked for one lately either. (I don’t think we need to be trying to teach our 6th graders SQL.)

But what about for younger kids? I remember a program called The Factory. The object was you combined chemicals to make monsters. Different chemicals made different monsters. I seem to remember you played around to see what chemicals would make which heads and torsos and arms. Then the computer started showing you monsters and you had to figure out what chemicals to give it to match them. I also remember a program called Snooper Troops. I don’t remember much else about it, other than it was a mystery and you went around looking for clues, and one of my classmates accidentally formatted the disk one day before any of us had managed to solve it. We couldn’t get the disk replaced, because it was out of print.

And Spinnaker had all sorts of simple titles for younger kids that let them tell stories and other stuff. It seemed cool at the time. But that was almost 20 years ago, so about all I remember was that sailboat logo and some corny theme music.

The other thing about those old days was that the majority of these programs were written in Basic. An ambitious teacher could modify them, to make them easier or harder, or improve the graphics a little. As we got older and learned to program, some of us would try our hand at making changes. You can’t do that anymore with Windows or Macintosh educational titles. Open source can bring all that back too, provided the programs are written in languages like Perl or Python. And it can give cash-strapped schools a way to get computers where kids can use them.

Now I’m wondering what it would take to write something like The Factory in Python…