Schools, patents, interoperability and the Asus Minibook

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Tim Pearson is the CEO of RM, the largest most successful supplier of ICT to the UK education market. He has been there from the start and last autumn he gave the school ICT world a jolt when RM announced its Asus miniBook. It retails to schools for only £169 and runs Open Source software throughout. The miniBook has preceded an avalanche of new products and new thinking.

You were part of RM during the heady, exciting days of the first computers in ordinary schools, viz the big black 480z; do you think we'll have so much fun ever again?

Not quite from the start, but I have been here since before the launch of the 480Z in 1981.

There were two things I really liked about that time: you knew you were at the start of a new technology that had a long way to go – we were developing the first low cost microcomputer network with Digital Research and Zilog at the time; and also, the levels of abstraction in the technology were sufficiently few that one person could have a chance of understanding pretty much everything that was going on in a system.

Nowadays – whilst I am sad enough to say that I miss the joys of assembler programming, in binary – the upside is you can start to produce really powerful and nice looking software much more easily.

Did you anticipate that the Asus Minibook (aka EeePC ) would sell out within two days of it's launch?

Inside the company it has been the subject of a public joke between me and our Chief Operating Officer. Last August, I said that we would sell ten-times the number he had forecast. As this became the subject of a very public £10 bet, he set his team the task of meeting my target less one! More seriously, it's been hard to forecast when we have no real experience selling at this price point before, neither have we ever sold a machine with a Linux-based client OS before.

Getting sufficient quantities to meet demand has been very hard – in fact, I don't think we’ve had free stock since we launched last year. We do our best to give a realistic forecast of lead time on a daily basis on our Web site though. We have now started taking orders for an XP version as well, but we’ve not shipped any of those yet.

Do you think that the difference between FOSS and proprietary software is something that is understood by purchasers in the education sector, moreover is it important in any way that it is?

No and No!

It's important to take yourself out of our techie world and into the world of a typical head teacher or subject teacher. As a generality, they’re worried about benefits to their pupils and costs to their school, the term FOSS doesn't mean much to most of them. This is a factual observation, not a judgemental one. Sure, school and authority technical staff understand completely, but this is a tiny minority of the 500,000 school staff out there.

Does it matter? No not really. On the Board at RM we have two of the World's top educationalists – Sir Mike Tomlinson and Professor Tim Brighouse. When you use terms like GNU, Linux and Open Source with them, well they are slightly intrigued that such things exists, but it does not capture their interest. What they want to talk about is how these things are used in schools – and why pupils get a better deal as a result.

It would be wrong to say that the miniBook success proves Linux is better than Microsoft. I know some of your readers will hate me saying it, but I suspect many users might prefer a Microsoft operating system.

Where Microsoft should be worried though is that users are saying: look, at this price point, with a full-featured Web browser, combined with the small form factor and solid state disk, the operating system is 'good enough'. There you are, now I have offended just about everyone in the world of IT in a single paragraph!

The Open Source software world is founded on collaborative enterprise and community projects. Do these kinds of phrase find resonance with RM's emerging thinking now that FOSS plays a significant role in your software portfolio?

Thus far not; going forward possibly. Let me explain. Software will continue to support both 'proprietary' and Open Source models. There’s an analogy – if you have a group of friends who play in a band and make great music for their own pleasure, then it's really nice to hear them play at the local pub or in a local community centre. It's definitely a 'feel good' experience to listen to them, knowing that they are doing it for their own pleasure and for the pleasure of entertaining others.

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