Weekend news round-up: Ethiopian kids teach themselves via computers; Google’s next big thing

30 Oct 2012

In our trawl through some of the tech news from the weekend, we discover how an experiment whereby illiterate kids in Ethiopia are using tablet computers to teach themselves is bearing fruit; Google’s next big thing in the world of predictive search; and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer contrasts the new Surface tablet PC with rival tablet devices.

Computers but no teachers – Ethiopian kids teach themselves

The MIT Technology Review reported how a bold experiment by the One Laptop Per Child organisation has shown “encouraging” results.

By simply dropping off tablet computers with preloaded programmes and seeing what happens the organisation endeavoured to see if illiterate kids with no previous exposure to written words can learn how to read all by themselves, by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programmes.

“After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the ‘alphabet song,’ and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint programme and wrote the word “Lion.”

“The experiment is being done in two isolated rural villages with about 20 first-grade-aged children each, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Addis Ababa. One village is called Wonchi, on the rim of a volcanic crater at 3,352 metres (11,000 feet); the other is called Wolonchete, in the Rift Valley. Children there had never previously seen printed materials, road signs, or even packaging that had words on them,” One Laptop Per Child founder Nicholas Negroponte said.

Is predictive search the next big thing?

The world of tech is moving definitively in the direction of devices and services that act as a personal assistant and make your life simpler, less complicated. The latest mobile operating system from Google, Android Jelly Bean 4.2, is designed to ambiently give you information you might need before you ask for it and signals the way towards the next big thing in technology, The Verge reported.

“With Android 4.2, launching alongside the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 on November 13th, Google has updated the feature with new information cards in new categories. And yet, the amount of engineering effort that makes Google Now possible is out of proportion to what it does — it’s a massive, cross-company effort for what seems like a relatively small product. That difference is a clue. Google Now isn’t important for what it does, well, ‘now,’ but the building blocks are there for a radically different kind of platform in the future.”

France threatens Google with law forcing search giant to pay for links to news sites

After meeting with Google chairman Eric Schmidt, it appears France intends to stand by its threat to write a law forcing Google to pay to link to news sites, Search Engine Land reports.

French President Francois Hollande reiterated that France would move ahead with the law if Google and French press organisations can’t reach a deal that would involve Google paying to link to them. He wants to see a deal in place by the end of the year.

“Google quickly responded to the idea a couple of weeks ago, saying such a law would threaten the company’s existence and saying it will simply stop linking to news sites if the law passed,” Search Engine Land reported.

US military to break with BlackBerry in favour of iPhone and Android devices

The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon is planning to open its network for the first time to Apple iPhones and devices running Google’s Android operating system, a threat to BlackBerry maker Research in Motion.

“The defence department plans to hire a contractor to build a system that will manage and secure at least 162,500 Android devices and Apple products, such as the iPad,” according to a document posted online on 22 October. The system may be expanded to handle 8m devices, the department said.

The plan opens the door for the military to provide alternatives to BlackBerrys, which already are used on the Pentagon’s network. RIM has clung to government business as an area of strength as consumers and some businesses switch to rival devices with bigger touchscreens and faster browsers, the paper noted.

Ballmer – seriously dude, you want a Surface!

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer exercised his characteristic swagger at the weekend and glossed over the success to date of Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle Fire.

According to All Things Digital, Ballmer believes the tablet consumers really want, the one they have always wanted, is Microsoft’s new Surface. Why? Well, it can do more stuff.

“I don’t think anybody has done a product that is the product that I see customers wanting,” Ballmer told CNBC during a recent interview. “You can go through the products from all those guys … and none of them has a product that you can really use. Not Apple. Not Google. Not Amazon. Nobody has a product that lets you work and play that can be your tablet and your PC. Not at any price point.

“This is a first-class tablet that people can enjoy and appreciate,” Ballmer continued. “It’s a PC; it’s a tablet. It’s for play; it’s for work. It’s a got a great price. That product doesn’t exist today.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years