Open source makes it possible for anyone to design their own computer

Could the Girl Scouts position themselves as a tech giant?

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Now that full-fledged computers are approaching the size of a USB Flash drive and are being sold for less than $75, my interest in designing a Linux computer of my own has been re-awakened.

As an educator, I would stock that computer full of free creativity and learning software, logic puzzle games, tutorial screencasts, engaging multimedia and artwork created with open source software. Naturally, I would use Linux as the operating system for that computer.

No matter how hard I worked designing such a computer, finding purchasers would not be easy. People are naturally wary of spending money on a computer designed by an unknown entity. So I started thinking, could I volunteer my time to support some well-known entity to sell a very affordable, very lightweight Linux computer that would benefit students worldwide? This entity or organization would need to composed of millions of smart and energetic youth and parents who already collaborate effectively to raise funds for their cause. I'm thinking the Girl Scouts of the USA.

Imagine if the Girl Scouts designed their own Linux computers. Right off the bat you would have 2.3 million minds working on the project. That's not including the 879,000 adults who are involved in supporting them. Can three million minds design an awesome computer? Most assuredly yes.

And if that computer were sold in large numbers, the profit margin for the computer need not be large. Maybe $5 or $7 per computer. That's a vast difference from the 100% profit margin that Apple charges for its computers.

Let's take this idea one step further. How about if the Girl Scouts offered multimedia advertising space on their Linux computer—in a way that does not intrude on the general usage of the computer. Such advertising might focus on educational and other community supportive products and services, with a discount to woman-owned businesses. The advertising revenue could push down the price of the computer even further.

In thinking about the prospect of a Girl Scouts' computer, I visualize a television advertisement with individual Girl Scouts appearing on screen saying: "Apple, meet your new competitor. We're the Girls Scouts. 3 million minds strong. Are you ready?" Substitute any other computer manufacturer's name for the next Girl Scout who appears on the screen.

Computer companies maximize many things when they design their computers. One thing they don't maximize: the educational benefits that can occur from the computers they sell. For too long they have omitted excellent educational software, tutorial screencasts, and other learning materials from their computers.

Thanks to open source software, the mainstream computer companies do not have a chokehold on computer design. Anyone can now jump into the game. Standing on the shoulders of giants—the programmers worldwide who have created Linux—the Girl Scouts could be poised to be the greatest tech giant of all.

The process of designing this computer would itself be a worthy use of Girl Scouts' time. Some scouts would create tutorials about programming in Python and Scratch. Some would create tutorials about Inkscape, Blender, Scribus, OpenShot, and all the other wonderful open source programs out there—not to mention the open source programs that have yet to be invented. The yet-to-be invented programs will find a fertile soil in which to grow.

I broached the idea of a Girl Scouts Linux computer to several people I know. One of the smartest among them lit up at the mention of this idea. In my imagination, I have been trying out this computer and I like what I see. And I believe this is an idea whose time has arrived.

About the author

Phil Shapiro - Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 30 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use 27 Linux stations. Between 2007 and 2012, he blogged for PC World magazine on various technology topics and currently writes for Ars Technica, MAKE magazine, FOSS Force, TechSoup for Libraries, and Visit him at his...