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OLPC Decision Not Final, RMS Asks: Can We Rescue OLPC from Windows?
Sunday, May 04 2008 @ 01:38 PM EDT

Richard Stallman just switched to an OLPC XO, for the free bios, and at that same moment in time, Nicholas Negroponte made some odd statements about Windows and the OLPC. Walter Bender's replacement has just been announced, by the way:
Charles Kane will move from the part-time role as chief financial officer to oversee the organization's operational matters and distribution of the XO laptop on a day-to-day basis....The organization is in negotiations with Microsoft to load Windows on dual-boot versions of the XO laptop, which is being marketed as a learning tool for children in developing countries. In an open letter, Negroponte criticized the development of Sugar, XO's user interface, and asked developers to stop bickering, unite and jointly develop a Windows user interface to make XO laptops more appealing to customers.

However, when rms spoke with some of the OLPC volunteers, it turns out that Negroponte was disappointed in the community's help with software, and that is his primary issue. He thought more volunteers would help, but he didn't set up the project in a way that encouraged it. And there were other problems, such as Flash, that I believe can now be solved thanks to Adobe's recent announcement about Flash.

Update: However, note Mozilla's warning about Flash and Silverlight, and its point that in HTML5, Flash will not be needed for audio or video.

So, the pressures that Negroponte was feeling -- that is a problem that can be fixed, simply by restructuring the project to enable everyone to know what is needed and facilitate contributions to Sugar. Whether that is going to be what resolves the issue, or whether that is truly the issue, is unknown to me. When Negroponte said that he couldn't promote openness and then exclude Microsoft, I became aware that there are some fundamental issues he hasn't yet thought through carefully (like what about the key on the XO that a child can press and see the underlying code? -- in Windows that won't be allowed, obviously, so logically I conclude Windows does not contribute to openness, and hence excluding it does promote openness), but according to Stallman, it is not too late to change Negroponte's mind. *If* that is true, it is certainly worth doing.

So he's written an essay, which I thought it was important to republish here, since a lot of you are programmers and can actually help if you wish to. I should also mention that there is a group forming to extend Sugar outside of OLPC, essentially a fork [upon deeper research, I'd say it's not a fork, but rather a group working to make sure the educational aims behind Sugar are fulfilled -- whether the group can work with OLPC still, although separately, is yet to be determined]. I'll have more information on that for you as developments occur. The truth is, in true FOSS fashion, nothing anyone does at the top can destroy Sugar. It will be extended and improved, thanks to being FOSS. But the OLPC project -- that can be damaged and at the moment, it is being damaged. So what rms is asking is this, "Can we rescue OLPC from Windows?" Personally, I'd like some binding commitment from Negroponte that if all the software issues are fixed, he'll stick to Plan A. It's possible that could happen, I gather, but I feel obligated to say it hasn't to my knowledge happened yet. So before everyone rolls up their sleeves, it might be wise to do some due diligence.

I wonder if Negroponte has done that with regard to XP. Is it going to be improved and extended or even maintained? Who will fix it when it crashes? Who will protect the little children from malware, which Microsoft software is so prone to be a victim of? Sugar and the XO was set up to provide real security. Can anyone say the same about Microsoft's software? What are you doing to those children?

And what about the future? If some governments want Microsoft software so children will be ready to find jobs, as I've seen reported in the media, the right question to ask them is, will XP be the software in use when the children grow up? Considering XP's death sentence date has already been announced, obviously not. And Vista is... well, the kindest thing to say is that it won't work on an XO or any small laptop of that type. That is what he should be telling anyone that says the children need Windows XP to be able to find jobs. I doubt there will be any on XP when the children start job-hunting. Negroponte isn't an engineer, and I gather the new president isn't either, so they may not even know such technical things.

However, since there is a fork on the way, whether or not Negroponte changes his mind, your labor will for sure never be wasted. So, it's up to you. Here is the essay.



Can we rescue OLPC from Windows?

by Richard Stallman

I read Negroponte's statement presenting the OLPC XO as a platform for Windows in the most ironic circumstances possible: during a week of preparing, under a deadline, to migrate personally to an XO.

I made this decision for one specific reason: freedom. The IBM T23s that I have used for many years are adequate in practice, and the system and applications running on them are entirely free software, but the BIOS is not. I want to use a laptop with a free software BIOS, and the XO is the only one.

The XO's usual software load is not 100% free; it has a non-free firmware program to run the wireless chip. That means I cannot fully promote the XO as it stands, but it was easy for me solve that problem for my own machine: I just deleted that file. That made the internal wireless chip inoperative, but I can do without it.

As always happens, problems arose, which delayed the migration until last week. On Friday, when I discussed some technical problems with the OLPC staff, we also discussed how to save the future of the project.

Some enthusiasts of the GNU/Linux system are extremely disappointed by the prospect that the XO, if it is a success, will not be a platform for the system they love. Those who have supported the OLPC project with their effort or their money may well feel betrayed. However, those concerns are dwarfed by what is at stake here: whether the XO is an influence for freedom or an influence for subjection.

Since the OLPC was first announced we have envisioned it as a way to lead millions of children around the world to a life in which they do computing in freedom. The project announced its intention to give children a path to learn about computers by allowing them to study and tinker with the software. It may yet do that, but there is a danger that it will not. If most of the XOs that are actually used run Windows, the overall effect will be the opposite.

Proprietary software keeps users divided and helpless. Its functioning is secret, so it is incompatible with the spirit of learning. Teaching children to use a proprietary (non-free) system such as Windows does not make the world a better place, because it puts them under the power of the system's developer -- perhaps permanently. You might as well introduce the children to an addictive drug. If the XO turns out to be a platform for spreading the use of proprietary software, its overall effect on the world will be negative.

It is also superfluous. The OLPC has already inspired other cheap computers; if the goal is only to make cheap computers available, the OLPC project has succeeded whether or not more XOs are built. So why build more XOs? Delivering freedom would be a good reason.

The project's decision is not final; the free software community must do everything possible to convince OLPC to continue being (aside from one firmware package) a force for freedom.

Part of what we can do is offer to help with the project's own free software. OLPC hoped for contribution from the community to its interface, Sugar, but this has not happened much. Partly that's because OLPC has not structured its development so as to reach out to the community for help -- which means, when viewed in constructive terms, that OLPC can obtain more contribution by starting to do this.

Sugar is free software, and contributing to it is a good thing to do. But don't forget the goal: helpful contributions are those that make Sugar better on free operating systems. Porting to Windows is permitted by the license, but it isn't a good thing to do.

I am typing these words on the XO. As I travel and speak in the coming weeks, I will point to it in my speeches to raise this issue.

Copyright 2008 Richard Stallman
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