OLPC and Windows (and Microsoft and the education system)

// April 29th, 2007 // Education, Free Software, Gadgets

Warning: This post ended up longer than planned, if you are bored easily, only read the first two paragraphs ;)

I’m a bit surprised that there haven’t been noise about this on the planets, but it’s probably due to the long weekend and people generally spending less time with their computers.

Via Slashdot, the OLPC XO Laptop will (be able to run) run Windows when it is sold in the US. The writer of the article considers it to be a heavy blow to the open source world, I think that “heavy blow” might be an overstatement.

I can understand why a lot of people, especially in education, would want to run Windows on the machine. The vast majority of educational software out there is written for Windows, and often in such a way that they can’t be ported to a free operating system in an easy way, or at a low enough cost to make it worth while. The problem is very much similar to running games on GNU/Linux. In some cases, the design of the game makes it incredibly easy to port over. In some cases, especially where very specific technologies such as DirectX are used, it can quickly become very complicated.

In South Africa, we’ve seen some shifts, even though slight shifts, to make educational software more web based. In the tuXlab project, the number 1 request from the schools are for more educational content. The Shuttleworth Foundation and Inkululeko Technologies have sourced some real good educational suites for these schools, and it got the attention of some of the other software vendors who didn’t get a slice of the pie. The shift that we observed was that more of the local educational software companies were using more and more web-based software tools, and also making more use of Flash (hopefully that will shift again to svg/javascript or even something better), specifically so that schools running free software could run their software. Now and again, we had a school asking us whether they may install Windows on their machines, so that they could run the same educational software in their tuXlab than in their Windows lab, and we would just explain to them that it would kind of defeat the purpose of their tuXlab, and since the lab run as an LTSP network, that it would be difficult to do it from a technical perspective too. As time progressed, and the availability of pre-packaged software grew for the lab, teachers started to prefer using GNU/Linux. A few schools even said no when they were free Microsoft labs to replace their tuXlabs. In my opinion, that is very big, considering that the one particular school ran their tuXlab on second hand computers, and that they were offered brand new Windows machines as replacements.

Sorry, back to the XO. I think that the interface truly innovative, and the system has the potential to provide a high quality and stable environment to develop and deliver software and content. If you look at DirectX again, for example, the latest version requires you to run Windows Vista, and some of the technologies, which is widely used in educational software (such as DirectDraw), is being deprecated. For schools that use Microsoft labs and use Windows based software, this causes a huge admin overhead, which is an overhead that most schools can’t afford to have. For the developers of the software, it causes even more problems. Firstly, they have to spend money to port their software to the new Microsoft technologies. Secondly, they have to get their clients to upgrade to a new version of Windows before they can get a return on updating their software.

If you consider a GNU/Linux system though, the application interfaces are quite stable, and even when new technologies are introduced, you are still able to access the older technologies to support your application. I think that, over time, software development houses will discover the benefits of using cross-platform technologies to develop their software, and gradually move away from technologies that limit them and their clients.

One specific educational revolution that might take place would be an ideal application for the XO Laptop, and that’s the Classroom Coders project (that’s just a working name), here’s Mark Shuttleworth’s blog entry about a two day workshop on it that was held last year. Hopefully we can teach kids to think for themselves again, instead of teaching them how to shut up and listen. All that the current schooling system is good for, it seems, is to teach kids how to look busy when they are working in an office one day, and I personally think that it is ridiculous. People are discouraged to think for themselves and just to blend in with the masses, I hope that if I have kids one day, that they wouldn’t have to go through a pathetic system as I did.

Apologies again for the long rant…

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11 Responses to “OLPC and Windows (and Microsoft and the education system)”

  1. “The founder of the ambitious “$100 laptop” project, which plans to give inexpensive computers to schoolchildren in developing countries, revealed Thursday that the machine for now costs $175, and it will be able to run Windows in addition to its homegrown, open-source interface.”

    From Yahoo, via Slashdot. Keywords is “will be able to”, not “will run”.

    Better suggestion would be not to fall for sensational articles in press?

  2. donalde says:

    Vista comes with DX9 as well, meaning that nothing has changed – the old games and such keep running. There’s no mandatory admin overhead caused by Vista. Most of the games and applications to be ported you are referring to are not using much of the DX.

    It would be actually more suitable to use WPF for them (The “Cairo Glade” combination of Microsoft) instead of DX. It’s easier to translate definitive languages and WPF has got awesome tools for conceiving small games and such. In fact WPF doesn’t have equivalent at all in the open source world. The similar separate components are available but the integration and the tools are just simply better with WPF..

    Anyways, umm.. It’s just good to see Windows on OLPC. It’s healthy to have competition. If the open source zealots can’t provide superior software stack they should lose on their objective anyways.

  3. antoine says:

    There is a lot of misunderstanding going around at the moment regarding Windows and OLPC since that post on slashdot.

    The crux of the announcement is not that the XO _will_ run Windows in the USA but rather that the recent hardware improvements have opened the door to the XO having sufficient power to be _able_ to run Windows.

    Having choices is a good thing and openfirmware linuxbios means never having to ask for permission to dual boot.

  4. jonathan says:

    Hey Petaris, I stand corrected. I see that I’ve misread the original article, which did say /able to run/. Corrected in post. BTW, the link you specified, http://ubuntudiaries.blogspot.com/, seems to be incorrect.

    Donalde, there are plenty of reasons why some schools will have to upgrade to Vista at some point. One big reason locally, is licensing. Many schools received free XP licenses, that was valid for three years, and it’s unsure whether they’ll have to pay for the next round. This will leave some schools with a choice: should they buy Windows XP, which is already more than 5 years old, or do they upgrade hardware and buy Windows Vista? I agree with you though, the competition is good. There’s nothing like competition to make big companies through more money at free software development :)

  5. jonathan says:

    Antoine, thanks for clearing that up. I think it’s good that there will be a more powerful version of the XO laptop. It would probably be nicer for running a full-blown Gnome or Xfce session too. Do you have specs for the $175 version?

  6. antoine says:

    AMD Geode LX-700 433/333 Mhz now as opposed to 366/266, 1.5w vs 3w, not the GX and bumps L1 cache up to 64Kb from 32kb and L2 up to 128K more advanced graphics acceleration (allegedly allowing better scaling support plus full 24 bit color alpha channel now but not yet confirmed!)

    Ram to 256Mb, Flash storage to 1gig

    And before the conspiracy theories start let me just mention that the upgrade was primarily due to Geode GX having very sluggish graphics performance when running Sugar and RAM boosts due to countries wanting a longer operational life out of the machine :-)

  7. donalde says:

    jonathan, the fact that “Vista requires hardware update” is mostly FUD. pretty much all the computers that run XP in a sane way run also Vista in a sane way. the higher requirements are mostly only for the eye candy and couple new other features (which you can disable automatically anyways).

  8. Tom Hoffman says:

    I think it also became clear that the lack of a L2 cache in the original configuration was crippling.

  9. I would like to note that having a platform locked in to GNU/Linux-based operating systems is probably better than having a platform locked in to Microsoft, but it is still far from ideal. A truly free platform needs to allow all comers, proprietary or otherwise. Free software needs to compete on its own merits, and its own principles; anything less misses the whole point. Fortunately, I have confidence that the people involved with the OLPC project recognize and embrace these principles. Anyhow, I’m starting to sound way too pompous and philosophical, but I do believe the “bigger picture” is very important to consider.

  10. [...] I really don’t see how running Windows XP on these laptops, even at $3 per “user”, makes sense. There is so much innovation here that it would be a complete waste to run a partially disabled version of a 6 year old operating system on the XO. Microsoft, 6 years old refers to the users, not the software! For more on this, see Jonathan Carter’s rant. [...]

  11. [...] I really don’t see how running Windows XP on these laptops, even at $3 per “user”, makes sense. There is so much innovation here that it would be a complete waste to run a partially disabled version of a 6 year old operating system on the XO. Microsoft, 6 years old refers to the users, not the software! For more on this, see Jonathan Carter’s rant. [...]

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