AJ Venter, Silent Coder, linux hackerHere’s some very interesting background to the educational platforms based on the Linux operating system by AJ Venter,  a hacker programmer who is very passionate about open source developments. It was posted in response to the article Thin client OpenLab Linux 3.2 released on Tectonic, the biggest open source news publication in Africa. This comment is re-published with his permission…

OpenLab never finished the 4.Z release after the lead developer resigned *cough* *cough* :p

The biggest major differences back then were:
1) OpenLab was locally developed.
2) Edubuntu was based on Ubuntu which is based on Debian. OpenLab was based on Slackware.
3) OpenLab’s educational content suite had 3 times as many apps and about 400 times as much actual content included (the suite came on a DVD-set which when installed grew to nearly 35gb of content)
4) Edubuntu had big money, OpenLab relied on a few customization projects to fund development.
5) In it’s day, OpenLab had the best hardware detection of any distro on the market (as vouched for by independent reviewers), on some systems it would get resolutions of 1600×1200 on the same hardware where Ubuntu 5.10 (then current) only got 800×600.
6) OpenLab had invested a massive amount of code in a complete admin suite with powerful features for teachers, such as bulk creation/deletion of users and had very powerful admin utilities for thin-clients. It was also the first system to offer thin-client support with local-device and sound support working out of the box.

But crucially, OpenLab did not ultimately survive. The people behind it all moved on to other projects. Karl Fischer is now the OpenSource head at the DTI, Denis Brandjes runs a popular cybercafe in Benoni, Uwe Thiem passed away recently (this is not so widely known but he was a major contributor to OpenLab) and myself started my own FOSS development company that creates clustering systems and cybercafe management software. (I also have a dayjob to suplement my income but that’s less exciting).

So that is the story today. I don’t normally talk about it much but the question was asked so here it is from the horse’s mouth. OpenLab was really cool in it’s day, it was an amazing project that was really great to work with, in it’s day 95% of the schools in Namibia had OpenLab powered classrooms, but the world changes and people change and the OpenLab project ultimately did not survive.

I would say the biggest single problem that plagued OpenLab throughout was that it’s target audience was young children, it was really good at that audience, but there is a problem with targetting that: the people who use it are NGO workers, teachers and children – there is a massive shortage of technically skilled people. So while OL had grown a very devoted user-community, it never really managed to grow a developer community and when the original developers moved on, there wasn’t anybody who could take over.

Myself and Uwe had a meeting last year with SNNA to discuss the possibility of reviving it in a new form with a much more open development plan that would try to fix that, some political issues delayed the project and then Uwe passed away so I guess the last hope for an OpenLab legacy went with him because I do not feel up to doing it by myself. I did it for 6 years and I know how hard it is. I chose instead to take over his position in the KDE community and keep that part of his legacy alive.

The good news is that OpenLab does survive in a way, a lot of what OpenLab pioneered have become standard features in many other distros – PCLinuxOS was one of the first, and more recent versions of Ubuntu have included many of our ideas (they may not have gotten it straight from us of course, as many other distros had it before them). None of these distro’s used our code, since the code is specific to the distro, but many of them did copy our designs and ideas (we created the first distro that shipped on a LiveCD by default and isntalled with one, and used the abilities of a livecd to ensure things like hardware worked perfectly, Ubuntu at the time had a livecd but it could not be installed and you needed another CD to install, this was the state of pretty much all other distro’s – that’s the most obvious but not the only example).

As for OpenLab code, only one project remains that is actively based on a piece of OpenLab code, that project is BW64Installer, which was based on the old OpenLab LiveCD installer. I created it for the Bluewhite64 distro and it’s now the default installer on that, it has become quite popular with other slackware like distro’s and has been added as an option on several others including darkstarlinux and blackdog64..

So that’s the whole story and then some 🙂

A.J. Venter