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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY | DIGITAL NATION

Holiday Wishes for Moderation and Sensibility

December 20, 1999|GARY CHAPMAN | Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin

It's that time of year again--maybe even a little late--for me to prepare my list for Santa. So here are my 1999 Christmas wishes, a diverse grab bag of hopes for next year and beyond.

Open Source: Perhaps the biggest news of 1999, maybe even bigger than the Microsoft antitrust trial, was the tidal wave of investment money that swept into Linux software companies such as Red Hat and VA Linux. The latter company broke all records with its Dec. 9 initial public offering as share prices rocketed nearly 700% in one day. Open Source software evangelist Eric S. Raymond became a multimillionaire overnight.

But what has made the Open Source phenomenon interesting and appealing has been its roots in the free software movement, its unique volunteer community of technically gifted adherents and its significance as an alternative model of technology development.

Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman and Linux creator Linus Torvalds have declined to participate in this year's financial windfall. Stallman, the movement's purist Moses, told the Boston Globe last week that Raymond "is setting a bad example" by cashing in on Wall Street's Linux mania.

There's a fascinating debate going on in the Open Source community about whether Open Source software can coexist with the casino-like character of today's high-tech investment scene. This is more than a debate about principles; it's about whether any alternatives to the venture capital and IPO model of innovation can survive.

My fervent Christmas wish is that the idealists and volunteers of the Open Source movement will renew their vows to think about what's best for people first, and let the money come on its own.

Computers in Schools: The United States is spending tens of billions of dollars to get computers and the Internet into schools and in front of every child in school. But nearly everyone who knows anything about American education is skeptical that computers will make much difference in student achievement. The paradox of public education these days is that computers and the Internet are important for schools, teachers and schoolchildren, but technology won't solve the most pressing problems schools face.

When I address audiences these days and tell parents, teachers and administrators that I think spending money for computers and the Internet in public schools is essential but that it won't make much of an impact on student performance, many people scratch their heads. Why are we spending so much money on a technology that won't significantly improve learning?

The simple answer is that everyone should have access to a computer and the Internet, and the Internet may be of some help in specific subjects. But don't expect computers and the Internet to turn out smart and accomplished graduates.

This position needs a lot more development and some key leaders who are willing to carry this message to the public. Right now we tend to hear from either end of the spectrum of opinion--from technophiles who argue that computers will "revolutionize" public education, which is nonsense, to rejectionists who think that computers interfere with the classical educational model of reading, discipline and hard work.

My Christmas wish is to find some articulate national leaders who will help develop the middle ground and assist in explaining it more clearly and persuasively.

Revising U.S. Patent Law: An obscure, dark-horse public policy issue that crept to alarming status in 1999 is U.S. patent law, especially for patents on "business practices."

In October, Amazon.com sued rival online bookseller Barnesandnoble.com when the latter implemented a version of Amazon's "one click" sales feature. Amazon.com has a patent on buying things on the Web with "one click." A judge, relying on the legality of this patent, made Barnesandnoble.com stop using its version of this technique.

Astonishingly, Dell Computer Corp. has a patent on its model of "build to order," or building computers immediately after they're ordered and sold. This is a business practice that has transformed the PC industry. Companies selling computers any other way have lagged in the market. Theoretically, Dell could sue every other computer manufacturer who has been forced to adopt Dell's model.

There are other examples that are equally amazing. TV Guide, for example, has a patent on displaying television schedules on the Web in a table format. U.S. biotechnology firms are patenting the genetic patterns of animals that have immunities against diseases.

My Christmas wish is that the government will step in and rethink patent law to prevent some truly absurd claims of ownership from becoming the norm.

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