Another look at Windows XP on the XO


It's been almost impossible to not stumble across's hands-on experience with Windows XP on the XO since the article was published last Tuesday. In case you haven't seen it here's a link to the story called "Exclusive Hands-On With OLPC’s XO Running Windows XP" and the original verdict which read:

David Hilbert in 1912
Windows XO
On paper, a dual boot XO gives kids the best of both worlds: the somewhat boring, but ubiquitous Microsoft OS and its giant universe of software together with Sugar, which is packed with learning tools for kids. However, our early peek suggests that the XP portion is not ready for primetime, as evidenced by the slow boot time, slow application load time, and trouble with multitasking and streaming media. We hope OLPC can fine tune the performance without increasing the cost.

The reason why I'm saying "original" verdict here is that's editors put up a note a day or two after the article was originally published, saying that they learnt that the Windows XP they had looked at wasn't a final version. This came after Michael Gartenberg from JupiterResearch blogged about the fact that his XO running Windows XP performed significantly better than what laptopmag reported:

I am finding a totally different experience with performance and load times much different and much better than the Laptops folks are getting.

Apart from this slight confusion the hands-on contains a couple of interesting pieces of previously unknown information:

We like that you can record video in Windows Movie Maker, just like you can in the Sugar camera program. It looked like you could edit movies in Movie Maker but we cannot imagine that works well with the allotted hardware.

With 'record' being one of the most popular activities on the XO (because which child doesn't like taking photos?) I was always wondering whether Microsoft would provide a stand-alone application for taking photos and videos. Now at least the video part of the question seems to be solved so the question remains which software can be used to capture photos. After accidently stumbling across a totally unrelated review of Microsoft LifeCam VX 5000 earlier today I'm thinking that its software could potentially fit the bill:

...the software's interface is quite stylish and very intuitive, albeit rather basic. Aside from the dashboard, which is switched off by default, there are only four 'buttons'. The first three start/stop video capture or audio recording, and take still pictures. The last one lets you access the folder where these files are stored, which seems to be set to a fixed location...

Otherwise we'll have to wait and see whether 3rd party applications will be made available for that purpose.

Another interesting observation was made with regard to the install size of Windows XP:

Because the onboard storage is too small to accommodate XP, the system boots a slimmed down version of XP off the SD card slot (that is hidden under the screen). When the 4GB SanDisk Extreme SD card was inserted into our test unit it booted right to XP (as you will see in the video below).The 4GB card was about half full (1.81GB) with Windows XP and other Microsoft applications and Firefox. There was about 1.97GB of free space left on the card.

1.81GB seems to be quite a lot for a slimmed-down Windows XP even considering that it comes with a selection of Office 2003 applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook). If I remember correctly already two or three years ago people used tools like nLite to put Windows XP on a diet of only 250~300MB. If this almost 2GB is the standard requirement then the developer's using the red XOs ( calls them orange) that come with 2GB flash-memory aren't going to be too happy. Even with 4GB SD cards being available for as little as $12 in single-quantities (compared to $6 for 2GB SD cards) this adds another couple of bucks per machine when purchasing the Windows XP version of the XO.

Again the aforementioned Michael Gartenberg from JupiterResearch tells a slightly different story because he mentions his sample coming with a 2GB SD card which had about 1GB of available storage capacity left.

Overall I have to say that I'm not really impressed. Having used Windows XP on the Geode LX platform many moons ago I knew what performance to expect (and I actually think it's quite good). It was also quite obvious that neither the Mesh nor collaboration (except for MSN Messenger that is) would be supported. And even though the screen-rotation didn't work when laptopmag tried is this is a trivial issue and I'm sure it will work in the final software versions. Supporting the outstanding display is such a basic requirement that again it was obvious that Microsoft would do it.

So some of the big questions that remain unanswered are:

  1. battery life: How long does an XO with Windows XP run away from the AC outlet?
  2. software-updates: How will children and teachers in schools without internet connectivity be able to get software updates? Will Microsoft also release a specialized version of Windows Server 200x to be used in combination with these XOs?
  3. sharing: Is there a quick and easy way to share files without having to rely on USB thumbdrives?

Note: I'm not suggesting that the current Sugar software is necessarily all that great when it comes to these issues. But there's been an enormous amount of progress in all three areas (and many more) lately and I definitely see things moving into the right direction. With Windows XP on the other hand I don't see any feasable short- or even mid-term solutions when it comes to addressing these challenges.

However, as always the real test will be children and teachers actually using the laptops so it's going to be interesting whether Microsoft's marketing department will release some information about that in the weeks and months ahead.

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The biggest problem for Negroponte is that nobody wanted his XO + Sugar combo offer. He is using Windows as a last-resort attempt at reviving interest in the XO, by making the machine appear more "mainstream" to the eyes of potential buyers.

The fact is, it will take a real miracle for Negroponte & Co. to peddle this unfinished, subpar device now that all pretentions of educational goals have been abandoned. OLPC is in the business of "putting laptops in kids' hands" (translation: "we just want to sell as many laptops as we can"), and that requires a finished product that comes tech support, distribution channels, spare-parts inventory, etc. As of today, OLPC can't deliver those things.

And let's not even get started with the thorny topic of the real co$t of security in a Windows environment...

@Irv - I think the underlying problem is the original utterance of "$100 laptop," which forever doomed this chunk of great hardware to being seen through the lens of a low-cost laptop and not an expensive-but-powerful educational device. It's akin to marketing an overhead projector as a large-format slide projector and having people complain that there's no auto-advance, ignoring the ability to write/draw/erase on transparencies "in real time." I've been writing about this mis-representation and its consequences at .

But -- your mention of security is important. Look closely at the laptopmag screenshots - I think you'll find a red "security shield," meaning that the performance they've discussed is running without an antivirus program standing guard and taking up resources.

you have got to be kidding, Microsoft has not polished this beast after all this time? How many months more of this foot dragging is it going to take for people to see that Microsoft wants the XO extinct?

As a hint, I read that Microsoft assigned well over 12 Microsoft employees to one reporter to make sure he prints the message Microsoft wanted him to print. Over twelve employees for a single article. Now look at this Windows XO project where there could potentially be millions of these sold and they have how many employees assigned to this? It has been months since they showed that video and that was about a year after they started the project and it's been mostly a repackaging project with some BIOS and driver work.

another hint as to their motives might be to look at the Asus Eee PC. That was a Linux-only cheap and small laptop. Now, after Microsoft stepped in with Windows XP again, there are few Linux based Eee PCs to be found and for some reason, those Linux devices have had extra hardware added which raises the cost. They are not so cheap any more. The reason for this is very likely the fact that Microsoft will pay anything to stop Linux or any non-Windows device from gaining marketshare. The XO is not going to be a Windows only device so it too will get special treatment to limit its market. Microsoft does not need the money from this and it is more important to protect the mindshare of Windows.

"$100 laptop,"
Don't forget the USD value dropped significantly due to the US on-going recession. A combination of mismanagement on OLPC part and the greed of both Intel (XO is equipped with AMD chipset) and Microsoft (wanted OLPC to use their OS) affected XO development. However, OLPC successfully made people aware of small UMPC without Windows. IMHO, trying to port Windows XP on XO is a waste of time given the fact there are no warranty that system will be maintained without the source code Microsoft are unwilling to release.

I have no choice but to conclude that Microsoft's purpose for providing XP on XO is simply to ensure that a Microsoft operating system remains a viable option for any consumer computing platform. With Linux-only on the XO and Linux-only (initially) on the EeePC 701, there was a growing gap of computing devices where Microsoft would not be able to provide an offering.

If I as an outsider can put together a fully functional version of XP with a 580MB diskspace footprint for running on a low-performance Celeron, then surely Microsoft can easily and quickly duplicate that.

Microsoft's releasing videos and teaser press releases months (and literally a year) in advance is classic FUD. By announcing XP for XO they triggered fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the current XO offering. They caused some Sugar advocates to lose heart in the shadow of the potential of an XP on XO juggernaut.

Even though they have a reputation for such behavior, I chose to give them a chance to prove their detractors wrong. Unfortunately, the skeptics were correct.

It's a shame. I honestly believe that XP on the XO can serve a good purpose.

Microsoft announces partnership with an emerging competitor, develops substandard software and runs expensive marketing campaign for the sole purpose of deception and market manipulation.

I have no idea how anyone expected something different from this. Did it ever happen that Microsoft jumped into competing project with any other purpose?

Irvin, your back telling us the XO won't work! You couldn't resist, could you.

"Microsoft's releasing videos and teaser press releases months (and literally a year) in advance is classic FUD. By announcing XP for XO they triggered fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the current XO offering."

Yes, the 'twists and turns' between OLPC on one side and Intel and Microsoft on the other continue. The best account I've read of the 'story' so far:

Why Microsoft and Intel tried to kill the XO $100 laptop
( )

Nicholas Negroponte had a vision: to build a $100 laptop and give away millions to educate the world’s poorest children. And then the fat-cat multinationals got scared and broke it...

Microsoft, makers of most of the computer software in the world, tried to kill it with words, and Intel, maker of most computer chips, tried to kill it with dirty tricks. Of course, they don’t admit to being attempted murderers. And when I introduce you to Intel’s lovely spokesperson, Agnes Kwan, you’ll realise how far their denials go. But the truth is the two mightiest high-tech companies in the world looked on Negroponte’s philanthropic scheme and decided it had to die.

Yet, 3½ years later, the laptop is clinging on to life.