One old OS per Child

I keep swearing that I'll shift gears and focus more on the good parts of the One Laptop Per Child project like the fusion of public and private interests in India, but then I keep getting pulled in to the stupidity du jour. Of late, that frustration has been Windows XP for the XO, spurred on by Wayan's post at OLPCNews.com on Windows' firmware modifications, and of course my posting on the XP on XO video that got slashdotted.

As a caveat, I have an iron in this fire. At home I have one XP system (formerly my primary computer, now mostly my email archive and mp3 player), my primary Linux (Ubuntu) laptop, a really old Linux (Ubuntu+xfce) laptop, and my OLPC (Sugar/olpc-build 703). I'm unabashedly an open-source evangelist, and I think there's a clear partnership between the non-profit/NGO/development world and F/LOSS -- we're all working to improve the world (on some level). I'm not rabidly anti-MS, but I think it's rarely the right solution, doubly so in low-resource environments, whether that be low- money, electricity, bandwidth or computing power.

That being said, Windows XP, recently released to manufacturing on the XO, has been the standard for home and office operating systems, and by many accounts still is. With its successor Vista stumbling out of the release gate and Mac still catching up at the office, many countries have reportedly been asking for Windows XP by name as part of their educational projects. Certainly there are some reasons why you may want to throw your hat in with Microsoft (though I'd personally argue that - especially in developing country situations - those reasons are not as solid as they initially appear). There's some value in training your students on the office systems they'll most likely encounter at the workplace, for example, and there's a decent chunk of freeware educational games and programs available for Windows.

I think, and not just because of kneejerk anti-microsoft feelings, that Windows XP on the XO is a poor idea, however. If the XO is supposed to be a system used to train children on how to use Windows after they get "real jobs" then there's been a huge miscommunication, bad marketing, or overselling. The XO should not be seen as a cheap laptop (the ongoing disaster of the very sticky "$100 laptop" idea), but as an educational tool (which happens to also have a lot of power under the hood!). 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."

The target age group is 5-16 year olds, not just "high school" age children (who might justifiably want to get some experience with whatever systems they will encounter in jobs or further education). A five year old needs an engaging experience, not a computer that keeps popping up anti-virus definition update notices, is easily infected with malware/spyware, and the like.

And please tell me that there's already a plan to include free anti-virus programs on the XP XOs? Sans recently issued a report that indicates the time to infection for an unpatched Windows XP system not running behind a firewall ranges from four minutes to 16 hours

I don't think it will ever be possible for a hobbyist to install this custom XP build - can you see Microsoft being at all interested in distributing or supporting that stateside? If you're abroad, you could potentially get at least an XP UP (Unlimited Potential) $3 license, but still it wouldn't be the right custom build. Perhaps it'll leak out somewhere as a pirated copy.

That actually raises another few questions. Will XP-on-XO users have to "validate" their Windows copies? What if their connection is down - will it disable/hobble the system? Will XP have any bitfrost-like mechanism to discourage theft (especially since it's now "valuable" as a "real" computer instead of "just" a learning tool (apologies for all the quotes) Is Microsoft also going to be donating an anti-virus subscription with that? You know, one which updates weekly from the Internet?

And, merely from a hardware standpoint, what happens if your SD card breaks (or gets ejected or stolen? I bet there's a good after-market for "lightly used" SD cards sold to tourists for their digital cameras). According to the Laptopmag hands-on, removing the card reverts the XO to Sugar, so that at least is good.