Archive for August, 2009

Flexbooks – a Non-Braindead way to produce textbooks

Flexbooks – a Non-Braindead way to produce textbooks

I’ve just seen a post on Flexbooks, an initiative of CK-12 so headed over to have a look.  I believe initiatives of this kind are extremely important.  Because copyright makes the price of textbooks too high, copyright is a significant barrier to education.  A poorly educated workforce is a lower production workforce.  In short, copyright ideology substantially lowers GDP.  Well, no more.  The Flexbooks initiative aims to provide textbooks for K-12 under the CC-BY-SA licence.  The obnoxious (and anti-social) ‘-NC’ is absent.  Thank heavens these are enlightened educators!

I have downloaded their 400+ page book on calculus and, after a quick flip, it seems appropriate for a late secondary school course.  In criticism, the typesetting of equations is a bit wonky (and given the long standing availability of LaTeX this seems very mysterious), some diagrams could be improved, the book lacks a preface,  appendicies and an index, and they seem to assume that student have a particular make/model of scientific calculator.  Much of the demonstration information relating to the site is in Flash, so they’re not entirely enlightened.

Downloading and distributing for free is not even half the story.   As the licence is SA, everyone is free to make changes to them – say farewell to the days of textbooks with US-specific references or out of date pricing.  Does the example in the text book refer to buying a penny white loaf at Banbury Cross?    Why, then change it to $2:00 wholemeal loaf in Sydney, a $3.80 milkshake at Ettalong Beach (for school children in that area) or even something from the tuckshop of the specific school it’s used in.  If there is something wrong with a chapter, take it out and replace it with a better chapter.  Over time such books will reach optimal quality – perhaps even in the absence of structured review (in that bad variants will be less used by teachers).

You don’t even need to change the textbooks to see the added value.  The fact that they’re electronic means you don’t need to print them or, if you do, you can print them in a size and format which suits you. If you think the idea of kids lugging 400 pages of text book to and from school every day isn’t a good one, print them out in smaller parts, one for each term.

This kind of initiative is exactly the kind of initiative that Government should be directing stimulus money to.

News from 1930

Interesting site with news from the corresponding day in 1930.

HT to Steve Keen who says:

‘As Alan Kohler also remarked recently, “one thing that comes through loud and clear is that they didn’t know they were having a Depression” (to which I would add the word “either”).’

Netbooks, Microsoft, a Turning Point

Netbooks, Microsoft, a Turning Point

If we win one more such victory … we shall be utterly ruined.”

Pyrrhus of Epirus, quoted by Plutarch in Life of Pyrrhus.

About 18 months ago a silver (actually white) bullet known as the eeePC running Linux appeared.   They were literally sold out immediately (example story) – despite the fact that they were pre-loaded with Linux, and well before the onset of austerity from the financial crisis.   Within 2 or 3 months a version of the eeePC running Windows XP was announced, first shipping in early (perhaps Jan??) 2008.   At about the six-eight month mark (give or take) people were happy to report the form factor being sold at 70-30% in favour of Linux (google it or see Brendan Leblanc’s claim of “under 10%” in the first half of 2008).

Since that time something has happened.  The specifications for this class of portable device have been steadily increasing, closing the gap between them and standard laptops (so much so, that there may not be a “netbook” market anymore).    With that the price of these machines has also increased.  Linux versions of the eeePC are either not available at all, or are only available on the lowest specification models.   Microsoft now claims to have dominated the  netbook market  with Windows installations (see the Leblanc post referenced above). [One comment notes that Linux based netbooks are available in China.  I would guess that they are available more generally in SE Asia (more price sensitivity) than in the West.]

Windows/Netbooks = Game Over?

Microsoft’s reaction to the success of the eeePC seems, on reflection, to have been well and professionally executed.  Indeed, now that the specifications have been upscaled, Microsoft has announced an intention to increase the licensing fees for this form factor.  That leaves open to question however, how the eeePC was able to be released sans Windows in the first place.  It is difficult to believe that Microsoft had no  knowledge of it.  If they did have knowledge, they certainly could have struck a deal over it (as the fact that they subsequently struck such a deal demonstrates).  They presumably chose not to strike such a deal.  Only ASUS and Microsoft really know what happened, but it does not seem wildly outside the evidence available to speculate that ASUS was initially rebuffed by Microsoft and then has had Microsoft approach them cap in hand.

If so, the eeePC has imposed a heavy price on Microsoft.  It was not a monetary price, although Microsoft has been reporting substantially reduced revenues (indeed, apparently its first ever quarterly revenue decline) and attributing those reductions to the netbook form factor (random example stories- one, two and three).  Rather, that price was its credibility.  The eeePC experience has indicated:

(a) that Linux based products can be a commercial success in their own right; and, as a corollary,

(b) that Linux allows manufacturers to dictate terms to Microsoft;

– and that is the crux of it.  In 2007-08 ASUS appears to have achieved what no other computer manufacturer has managed to do in perhaps over 20 years – it dictated the terms of supply of Microsoft’s products, both in terms of price and availability (XP’s sales availability was either ended or imminently to end).  Given the position of Microsoft this, of itself, is a remarkable achievement.  However ASUS’ achievement was even more far reaching.  Not only do they appear to have dictated terms, but the terms were, in effect, that XP be sold both as a commodity and as a complement to the eeePC.  Commoditising your complements is the holy grail of business.  It allows you to extract the most value/price premium from the sale of your products.

Far from showing strength, the wide availability of Windows on netbooks is a sign of weakness.

Looking forward

The eeePC was the proof of concept for a Linux based future.  There is something incredibly powerful about achieving an apparently unachievable goal.   Until something has been shown to be achievable, only the very brave or committed will even attempt it.  However, once something has been shown to be possible,  many people suddenly become willing to attempt it, and with more people attempting it, each new comer learns faster from the experiences of others.  Consider the history of scaling Everest, with some 30 years from the first attempt in 1922 to Hillary and Tenzing’s first successful ascent in 1953, the time since has been peppered with many additional ascents, including ascents under different conditions such as an ascent without supplementary oxygen, which was once thought too difficult.

It should therefore not be much of a surprise that many companies are now making strategic investments in Linux (reload the link if you don’t get there on the first attempt).   Some companies (such as Dell, Acer and HP) are expressly supporting Linux as a desktop operating system.

Rumours of My Death…

Nothing here should be taken as indicating backruptcy any time soon (- or ever!), or that there is imminent danger of Microsoft ceasing its participation in the IT sector.  It’s involvement is broad and deep and will not fade for a long time.  General Electric, for example, continues to live on after having diversified into many different areas over the past 100 years (Wikipedia claims that half of its revenue now comes from financial services).   Rather, it seems that the days of Microsoft-as-we-knew-it, the corporation which could dictate, at least to some non-trivial extent, many aspects of the IT industry through its leverage over OEMs are over.  Microsoft cannot afford for an OEM to stare them down on the next  eeePC – another Linux based success on the scale of the eeePC would remove any doubt from the minds of the industry.

If this assessment is correct, we would expect to see other industry participants investing in open source, and in Linux in particular, as both a hedge and as negotiating leverage.  Indeed, assuming that ASUS has extracted concessions from Microsoft, other OEMs will be disadvantaged if they do not follow a similar strategy (see this story on Acer’s proposed support of Linux for example).  Loading Linux now appears to be a path to strength.  Google is pursuing it.

In addition, we would expect to see Microsoft to continue to back track on its licensing requirements.   We have seen the start of this in its removal of the three concurrent applications limitation on the starter edition of Windows 7, and also in its repeatedly pushing back the end of availability to manufacturing of XP (it is now 30 June 2010 for the netbook form factor – however despite Microsoft’s end of sales date ASUS has apparently secured an agreement to load XP on its eeeTop).  2008 seemed to be a particularly fruitful year for backpedalling (including limits on CPU speed, RAM, hard drive size, use of hybrid storage and screen size – apparently screen size for a netbook is now 14.1″, – hardly a substantive limitation on the netbook form factor).  [One comment indicates that the screen size for windows 7 is 10.2″ – it will be interesting to see how this plays out, although 12″ netbooks don’t seem to have done that well]

The Final Analysis

The eeePC experience was the case study for the viability of a Linux based future.  If ASUS has used the Linux eeePC to extract negotiating concessions from Microsoft, then it has, in the process, also undermined Microsoft’s credibility, opening the way for other vendors to play into this gap.   Further, if ASUS has secured concessions then other vendors who do not pursue an aggressive Linux strategy will put themselves at a disadvantage.  There is therefore an internal logic to the market which will drive support for Linux installations going forward.


I’ve not been able to pinpoint the initial launch date for the eeePC, although it seems to be 16 October 2007.

I recall, but cannot find a reference to, thieves taking the Linux notebooks, but leaving the Windows based ones behind when they robbed a store.  I think it was in the UK and I think it was around March 08. [-> See comment from Al, re Elonex netbooks]

Many secondary documents had to be referred to because primary documents were updated, losing the time relevant information.

The Windows versions of the eeePC were curiously configured in such a way that there was no direct comparison between Linux and Windows versions.   This was also true of some Acer models.  Dell now seems to offer direct comparison (eg lattitude 2100).

Post script

The eeeTop appears to not be available with Linux – however it is shipping with OpenOffice installed.  I guess  other vendors don’t offer an OpenOffice option on their installs – a quick look at the Dell 2100 indicates that Microsoft Office is available as a customisation on the Windows version, but no office suite is available on the Linux version.   Office suites may be next…

“If you don’t have Flash(tm) we don’t want your business”

“If you don’t have Flash(tm) we don’t want your business”

Seems to about sum it up:

Why anyone would turn away potential customers based on whether or not they have flash player installed is beyond me.

Native Instruments are even worse – flash player isn’t enough, you need the most recent version (ffs -ie using my eeePC with Flash didn’t help).  Note to NI: If you want me to spend $1000-$2000 on some of your software html wouldn’t be too much to ask in return.  Ironically, the only thing which doesn’t require flash is their online shop. [I sent them an email, they invited me to upgrade if I couldn’t see their site properly – sigh]

Lamb’s Fry

Lamb’s Fry

Had lamb’s fry [=lamb’s liver] for breakfast a few weeks ago at The Cat’s Pyjamas – very yummy.  Used to love lamb’s fry as a kid but no one seems to serve it in Sydney.  Still tastes like it used to, although caramelised onions, bacon and tomato relish is a nice touch.

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