How Windows XP On OLPC XO Can Be a Good Thing


I am Nicola Ferralis and I'd like to point out that 60% of OLPC News readers already surf the internet with browsers other than Internet Explorer. You use Firefox or Opera or Safari. Why that is? Simply because you know how bad Internet Explorer has been in terms of security, features and performance these past years.

You can easily judge this because you tried IE at least once, and the performance you saw was much worse than other better alternatives, in other words, you tested different alternatives on your PC and you chose the best.

I do not want to sound as a Microsoft basher, I am just pointing to a perfect example of how competition can serve as a way to improve both open source and proprietary software; a competition played on the user level (usability, security, flexibility, code redundancy, performance) and not in terms of market penetration.

This browser competition brought as a result a great deal of interest in the browser development, and reawakened Microsoft to improve their product (with IE7) that they considered not strategic until Firefox showed up.

Why am I talking about this in this forum? Because I think some similar level of competition would be extremely good for OLPC. We hear every day about the use of Windows XP on the OLPC XO. At the same time we hear conspiracy theories about the role Microsoft has in recent hardware improvements, or their discounted 3$ bundle for Windows+Office as a perfect match for the XO. Many people have expressed their disappointment about this, because they see the typical heavy hand of Microsoft pushing on the OLPC project.

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For once, I actually think that having Windows on the XO can be a good thing, although not for the reasons way you may imagine. Firefox without Internet Explorer would have not been such a great browser that it is today. The same can be said for Sugar UI on the XO.

When you are trying to sell a totally new and untested product, the first reaction of the market is to ask you how it performs against known solutions, what it has to offer better than the mainstream product. If I need to buy some equipment in the lab I work, I need to justify why I am buying that product instead of another, based on solid grounds.

What happens when government officials come to the OLPC people saying: "How's Sugar performing when compared with XP?". The argument "Linux is better than Windows" although tempting and most likely right (but this my personal opinion), isn't based either on a scientific or educational base ground, when applied to the OLPC.

If instead you say: "Tests have been done extensively with the students with both platform (may I add Macs too?). These are the performance results, both for the machine and the student education: This platform is better than the other." Educationally speaking, this will be a major part of this testing, because, as I recall, this is primarily an educational project.

Instead currently Sugar is "sold" to government as a "great platform", but apart of being untested (or only partially tested), there is no study that compares it with the mainstream offering from Microsoft, and this may actually act a disadvantage to the OLPC as a project, considering how Microsoft-centric most IT departments and government are.

As as simple rule of competition in free market, if I could be part of the OLPC team, I would actually do an "on the field" testing of the two competitors, Sugar vs XP both on the XO. I would say give the machine with Sugar pre-installed to a group of kids for a month, and then the one with XP for another month. These tests should be identical for the two machines, for example by having the students (and not geeks) to perform some assignments or simply to see what is the most creative platform and how it impacts their educational lives.

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Testing OS and form factors

Tests should be handled scientifically, and should include infrastructure testing as well, including technical aspects of the use of the platform (networking, intercommunication, server back-end). Particularly important would be testing all the educational impact.

Most important get student's reactions. Use their feedback. After a good amount of time, OLPC should declare the winner. This is the scientific method at work, like it or not: a theory, experimental data, results, conclusions.

So this is why, I think, competition is good. We all probably know that Sugar would most likely win, but having a real comparison test would settle the debate once and for all, mostly in the eyes of the future users and their respective governments. In case they will decide to go for the loosing platform, that would be their problem, they had been warned.

Finally, the reader may wonder about placing XP in the XO would violate the open source nature of the platform. On the contrary it would perfectly in line with it. Being a true open source believer, I would not want to restrict the hardware to anybody, Microsoft included.

That will contradict the very fundamental open nature of the Children's Machine XO, which is not, like a Mac, a close source, closed development platform. The fact that Windows will score poorly is irrelevant, in fact it will be a good thing. But closing the platform seems to me like restricting it in an act of fear. And we all know, it is Microsoft to have much more to fear open source than vice versa.

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I agree that openness of test methods and results as well as scientific assessment criteria should be the basis of important decisions.
However, the aim should not primarily be to declare either MS or OLPC the winner. Rather it should be made sure that the kids are going to be the winners!

I.e. not only should the different OS/SW-suites be compared with each other but also additionally with traditional style and constructionism style teaching WITHOUT laptops.
Otherwise if both MS and OLPC used laptops the wrong way still one of both would win but kids would loose by getting a less effective education than before.

Of course, I believe that education with laptops can be more effective if it's done right. And whether it's done right needs to be proven against different alternatives AND the status quo.


you are absolutely correct. My point was to provide a way to simply clear up the debate Sugar vs XP. This debate is simply steering the interest OLPC from the educational aim to a more business project. Clearing by declaring to the world that XP simply won't work, will finally put the education back into the equation.

But you are absolutely correct. A similar way of testing is required also when compared with traditional educational tools. In fact I'll give you a great example on how this is done in the US at the academic level. If you apply for a grant to the National Science Foundation to develop some sort of educational curriculum (but the same is true for any grant you ask from them), they demand a yearly review, complete with a scientific analysis of the impact of such project. If you tell them that you had a great success, but with no concrete results (statistical reports, educational impact, graduation rate), they simply pull the plug. In addition, they demand that the project uses the results for further improvements of the project itself, for a possible "phase 2" of the project. We can discuss on the methodology for these test, but one thing is clear. You can't get away (with the US government) in a private educational project without showing where you are going, what you expect from it, and what results you got from it. Tens of projects don't get refunded just for this reason.

The fact that OLPC is dealing with governments that let them get away with these simple rules, is beyond my understanding.

"When you are trying to sell a totally new and untested product, the first reaction of the market is to ask you how it performs against known solutions, what it has to offer better than the mainstream product. If I need to buy some equipment in the lab I work, I need to justify why I am buying that product instead of another, based on solid grounds.

What happens when government officials come to the OLPC people saying: "How's Sugar performing when compared with XP?"."

The comparison is misleading. You are talking about cases where someone has decided to buy a certain sort of product, and is trying to decide which brand. But with olpc none of the countries were planning on buying laptops that could be used where there is no electricity, in part because up to that time no such produce existec. So oplc's problem has not been persuading the countries that sugar on linux is a better solution than window, rather it has been selling them on a whole new product type.

As far as competition improving the competitors goes, Windows is so far behind oplc for this type of use that it doesn't provide any spur to developing oplc. And remember, IE needed competition from Firefox because it had a monopoly and had completely ceased innovation. Oplc, on the other hand, is being developed at a startling pace.


You should consider that Classmate exists, it's real, runs Linux OR Windows, so lots of countries may see that as an option for the OLPC too. In particular the XO with XP will be cheaper than the Classmate with XP.

So some governments may still inquire about the real advantages of Sugar vs XP, not for any other reason that they themselves most likely use Windows. Comparing something new to what you know (or is known in the educational literature) is quite important to me. Seeing the failure of XP on XO would actually help Sugar in its cause, assuming that it performs well (as it will, I think). The all argument of selling something completely new in a close box, is a risk too big, considering the investments that those countries are asked. That is why a comparison would help Sugar, similarly to the comparative ads we see on TV everyday.

Regarding the Firefox vs IE comparison, I actually meant to compare, on a large scale Firefox with OLPC. You know how good Firefox/Sugar can be only after you test IE/Windows. The good thing is that Microsoft, from the monopolistic position it holds, may finally start producing better (educationally speaking) products, just to be able to compete, since price will not be a field of competition compared to Linux.

Not that I am interested in buying their products, but let's face it, Microsoft isn't going away any time soon.

Luis: "You should consider that Classmate exists, it's real, runs Linux OR Windows, so lots of countries may see that as an option for the OLPC too. In particular the XO with XP will be cheaper than the Classmate with XP."

In the article you talked about XP on XO laptop, not XP on the Classmate, and so that is what I was responding to. This is getting confusing. Are you talking about comparing XP on the XO with sugar on the XO, or XP on the Classmate with sugar on the Classmate, or XP on the Classmate versus sugar on the XO, or even sugar on the Classmate with XP on the XO?

Also there is the matter of setting. Classmate is designed for well-functioning school systems that have classrooms, electricity, and enough teachers. XO with sugar has as its number one target classes where there is no electricity, often no school building, and the a shortage of teachers so students attend only half-day. Classmate with windows is no competition at all for this type of setting.

I do agree with you that it would be good to compare sugar on XO with XP on the Classmate for settings with well-functioning schools. They are definitely going to be in competition there. I also agree it could motivate Microsoft to produce better educational software.

What I miss in all this talk about competition between XO and XP is the safety of the children.

The OLPC project has gone through a lot of anguish and effort to get the 2b1's set up to be safe for the children.

This is both network safe, against malware, identity theft, and spying, and physical safety.

If the 2b1 computers can be redeployed, they become a target for theft. XO is set up to make the 2b1 laptops doorstops if they are stolen or lost. A lot of ingenuity has gone into making this fool proof.

Now think of XP. This is at best password protected. No malware protection or firewalls are delivered. The update routes of XP are fragile, and not designed for children.

This means a lot of XP machines will end up in botnets. And if the laptops can be redeployed, they will be stolen. If the children are robbed, a password would become dangerous. The result will be that children will likely not be allowed to take the laptops home.

On the other hand, no example of Linux botnets are known. Linux normally doesn't need a firewall. And every known attack has been explored and block by the OLPC project.

Has anybody actually considered these dangers of XP.

Today I feel cheated for having promoted a project which they said was education, an alternative for children who might have a future in the free world, a world where we (underdeveloped countries) were not only technology consumers.

Who is talking about competition? Perhaps Microsoft is who allows more competition in the world? They will have more money but fewer scruples.

Education without Freedom? It Does not an educational project, is a big business for Microsoft, but it's bad for everybody. Paying $ 3 for the "first dose" of technological dependency is paying for be an slave in the future. $ 0 is too expensy. Freedom is not sold, but here, in my country, there are many governments that not only delivered free if not also pay for leave it.

I would like to have hope, but I live in a country that has taught me, unfortunately, that without scrupulous money moves all.

There is no "real" need for having the benefits of the web and IT and education for MS on the OLPC. Nobody knows, but I guess that sooner or later, MS will use their distribution power, influence and money so that the first OS the people get to know will be Windows and finally bash the Open Source approach away. We should face it, their won't be real competition, and even if, not long enough so the poeple will have any benefit from it.

This is one of the weakest reasonings I have ever heard. Could you comment on the following quote, taken from ?

"XO is built from free and open-source software. Our commitment to software freedom gives children the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms. While we do not expect every child to become a programmer, we do not want any ceiling imposed on those children who choose to modify their machines. We are using open-document formats for much the same reason: transparency is empowering. The children—and their teachers—will have the freedom to reshape, reinvent, and reapply their software, hardware, and content."

And I would also like to hear once more the reasons why apple's offer of free OSX was turned down. If this isn't a paradigm shift, try to find a name.

I would also like to point out that due to the nature of OLPC organization, which up to recently could be epitomized by the previous quote, brought a great amount o volunteer's work in to the project. Would that be the case if this move was known from the beginning?