Last week's story about Nicholas Negroponte saying that Sugar should have been an application and the inevitable subsequent Slashdot story created a lively discussion in many places. Among them was also the OLPC devel mailing-list where Carlos Nazareno asked a related question: "Is anyone actually doing Windows on XO work here?"
Indirectly helping the XO-1.5?!
One of many replies on that thread stood out as it offered a new (well, to me at least) angle on what exactly OLPC did when it comes to making Windows run on the XO. Mitch Bradley, the mastermind behind OLPC's use of Open Firmware, explains (see the link for his complete e-mail):
At the moment, OLPC is doing approximately zero work on Windows. That wasn't true last year. I spent several months last year making it possible to boot Windows from Open Firmware. The reason I did that was to prevent Microsoft from "taking over" the XO machine. Their plan was to purchase machines and instruct the factory to reflash their SPI FLASH boot ROM with a conventional BIOS - which would have prevented OLPC's Linux from working.
Boiling it down into one sentence:
I spent the time to enable OFW to dual-boot Windows and Linux, thus preventing "Windows only" XOs.
Looking at things from this perspective the decision to support dual-boot certainly seems very reasonable and not, as previously often perceived, as selling out to Microsoft!
Admittedly if it had been hell bent on getting Windows-only XOs into the field Microsoft could have still gone ahead and replaced OFW with a traditional BIOS, regardless of OFW's dual-boot support. However I would assume that this would have resulted in additional cost to the Windows-XOs which were already more expensive than their Sugar counterparts.
Interestingly the work initially done by Mitch to support Windows on the XO-1 is now making things easier for OLPC's XO-1.5 software development:
That work paid off in another way for XO-1.5. The ACPI infrastructure necessary to run Windows on XO-1 let us to use a more "standard" Linux kernel for XO-1.5.
Mitch however continues to say that the XO-1.5 looking more and more like a conventional PC is a bad thing though it's not quite clear to me why he thinks that. Possibly, and I'm really speculating here, he is referring to the fact that the work done for the XO-1.5 also serves the goals of Microsoft in that it makes it easier to get Windows (7 Netbook Edition?) running on the system. In case he's more worried about perception this isn't really an issue in my mind since in most circles OLPC is mainly known for the "$100 laptop" to begin with.
At the very end of the e-mail we learn something that probably doesn't come as a surprise to most of us though I'm sure some people won't be too happy about it:
It's possible - even likely - that I will have to spend some time in the next few months to make Windows boot on XO-1.5.
Now let's only hope that OLPC and we, as part of the larger OLPC community, have learned our lessons in 2008 and do a better job this time in explaining to the world what this development really means.
Thanks a lot to Bastien Guerry for reviewing a draft of this article. He has also written about this topic over on the OLPC France blog.