One year ago, Ivan Krystic, having quit as security developer for the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project, wrote a blog post criticizing OLPC’s decision to ship Windows on their XO laptops. He provides some sound reasoning against this decision:

“OLPC should be philosophically pure about its own machines. Being a non-profit that leverages goodwill from a tremendous number of community volunteers for its success and whose core mission is one of social betterment, it has a great deal of social responsibility. It should not become a vehicle for creating economic incentives for a particular vendor.”

 and

“Most importantly, the OS that OLPC ships should be one that embodies the culture of learning that OLPC adheres to. The culture of open inquiry, diverse cooperative work, of freely doing and debugging — this is important. OLPC has a responsibility to spread the culture of freedom and ideas that support its educational mission; that cannot be done by only offering a proprietary operating system for the laptops.”

Yet in the same breath, Krstić condemns the free software community as ‘foaming-at-the-mouth’ puritans for refusing to co-operate with the project if it is collaborating with proprietary software vendors. He completely misses the point of Richard Stallman’s comparison between Windows and hard drugs. Yes, Windows can’t harm or kill you, and drugs can. So can jumping out of a plane with a parachute on. The crucial difference is that jumping remains a choice each time you do it (let’s not complicate the comparison by factoring in adrenaline addiction). Physically addictive drugs, like using Windows, lock you into continuing to use them, making it more and more difficult to switch to alternatives each time you use.

Giving children in the developing world the choice between Windows and a free software OS is like giving them a choice between lollies and fruit trees. The former ties them into a dependence on an external supplier for more product, reinforcing an inequal power relationship reminiscent of colonialism. The latter will continue to give them product without any new inputs, and they can clone or cultivate more trees to share with their neighbours. Unfortunately, because the trees might take some time, and care, to fruit, the lollies will be tempting. 

Allowing Microsoft and their monopolistic, monocultural agenda anywhere near the OLPC project is like letting a pedophile hang out at your democratic pre-school. Windows is unsuitable for developing world education projects for both philisophical AND technical reasons, see an example of each above as given by Krystic. One would hope whoever is still working for the OLPC project would absorb these points over the last year. Sadly, according to the .pdf 2009 overview provided by OLPC News, OLPC is shipping the XO with Windows XP, for sales to developing world governments. However, at least the OLPC project has been successful in pushing down the prices of laptops, and introducing a range of innovative features that make them more useful in developing countries. The challenge now is for the free culture movement to create its own organisations to supply this hardware, complete with free software OS, to those who need it.

Filed June 23rd, 2009 under free software, open source

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