The BBC are reporting that Windows XP will be shipping as an alternative OS on the One Laptop Per Child. Techcrunch dumbs the story down, typically, but a commenter links to an insightful essay by a former OLPC developer, Ivan Krstić about his anger over the direction the project has taken.

This is good for Microsoft of course, because they get their hooks into a massive emerging market. It's also good for OLPC Foundation, because right or wrong most people still consider Windows to be the only true standard.

I do wonder why OLPC chose to devise a bizarre and unique OS (The Sugar OLPC Human Interface). Matching the UI to the intended target audience sounds like a great idea, but surely emulating a more 'standard' desktop environment, like Gnome or KDE, would have been much more appealing to nations who would see that skills learned would be transferable. Krstić makes a similar point in his post:

Windows is a requirement because enough people grew up with it, not the other way around. If OLPC made a billion people grow up with Linux, Linux would be just dandy for business.

So instead these new users will have to use an operating system that Microsoft is trying to persuade those in the developed world to leave behind. After all, XP isn't going to be available after June... or is it?

Microsoft plans to offer PC makers steep discounts on Windows XP Home Edition to encourage them to use that OS instead of Linux on ultra low-cost PCs (ULPCs). To be eligible, however, the PC vendors that make ULPCs must limit screen sizes to 10.2 inches and hard drives to 80G bytes, and they cannot offer touch-screen PCs.

This is exactly why developing nations should want open source software. It is tragic to me that Microsoft are using their clout to force themselves into markets that have been made possible by open source software and free thinking. The Eee PC runs perfectly on Linux, and Asus were able to customise Xandros to make a unique interface, perfectly suited to the limited capabilities of the tiny computer and full of free software. But the current Eee 900 has the option Windows or Linux, and the tragedy is that most retailers will probably sell more Windows machines - because that's what people want.

I'm trying not to sound like some Linux hippy, but it's hard not to be frustrated. I have only been using Linux exclusively on my home PC for six months now and it's pretty clear to me that all Linux needs to be ready for mass market is ... more users. High profile machines like the Eee or OLPC is exactly what free software needs to prove its worth. And, of course, Microsoft knows this.

Right now, I can think of no reason I would want to use a decommissioned operating system on such a small laptop. Web browsing, emailing, word processing and all the other basic software food groups are perfectly well catered for. Linux still falls behind Windows or OSX for some advanced software users, but this isn't an issue here. If you could run Photoshop, I doubt you would want to! The game isn't over here fortunately: the Linux version comes with 20GB of hard disk space, while the Win version has 12GB and is reportedly much slower to boot.

It'll be interesting to see what happens next. I have a feeling that the OLPC project has no soul behind it. Nicholas Negroponte comes off pretty poorly in the Krstić essay:

In fact, I quit when Nicholas told me — and not just me — that learning was never part of the mission. The mission was, in his mind, always getting as many laptops as possible out there; to say anything about learning would be presumptuous, and so he doesn't want OLPC to have a software team, a hardware team, or a deployment team going forward.

The ramifications for Microsoft forcing themselves onto Eee PCs doesn't seem like such a big disaster for the future of humanity. After all, most of us use Windows already - it is only fair for it to be an option.

The truth, as I see it, is this: Free software is the future. Right now, it works and the more people who use it, the better it will get. The takeaway from these stories is that we can't trust businesses to have our best interests at heart, because they are necessarily more interested in the bottom line than progressive ideologies.

We need to do something more to spread the message ourselves.


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