Can we rescue OLPC from Windows?
I read Negroponte's statement presenting the OLPC XO as a platform for Windows in the most ironic circumstances possible: during a week of preparing, under a deadline, to migrate personally to an XO.
I made this decision for one specific reason: freedom. The IBM T23s that I have used for many years are adequate in practice, and the system and applications running on them are entirely free software, but the BIOS is not. I want to use a laptop with a free software BIOS, and the XO is the only one.
The XO's usual software load is not 100% free; it has a non-free firmware program to run the wireless chip. That means I cannot fully promote the XO as it stands, but it was easy for me to solve that problem for my own machine: I just deleted that file. That made the internal wireless chip inoperative, but I can do without it.
As always happens, problems arose, which delayed the migration until last week. On Friday, when I discussed some technical problems with the OLPC staff, we also discussed how to save the future of the project.
Some enthusiasts of the GNU/Linux system are extremely disappointed by the prospect that the XO, if it is a success, will not be a platform for the system they love. Those who have supported the OLPC project with their effort or their money may well feel betrayed. However, those concerns are dwarfed by what is at stake here: whether the XO is an influence for freedom or an influence for subjection.
Since the OLPC was first announced we have envisioned it as a way to lead millions of children around the world to a life in which they do computing in freedom. The project announced its intention to give children a path to learn about computers by allowing them to study and tinker with the software. It may yet do that, but there is a danger that it will not. If most of the XOs that are actually used run Windows, the overall effect will be the opposite.
Proprietary software keeps users divided and helpless. Its functioning is secret, so it is incompatible with the spirit of learning. Teaching children to use a proprietary (non-free) system such as Windows does not make the world a better place, because it puts them under the power of the system's developer -- perhaps permanently. You might as well introduce the children to an addictive drug. If the XO turns out to be a platform for spreading the use of proprietary software, its overall effect on the world will be negative.
It is also superfluous. The OLPC has already inspired other cheap computers; if the goal is only to make cheap computers available, the OLPC project has succeeded whether or not more XOs are built. So why build more XOs? Delivering freedom would be a good reason.
The project's decision is not final; the free software community must do everything possible to convince OLPC to continue being (aside from one firmware package) a force for freedom.
Part of what we can do is offer to help with the project's own free software. OLPC hoped for contribution from the community to its interface, Sugar, but this has not happened much. Partly that's because OLPC has not structured its development so as to reach out to the community for help -- which means, when viewed in constructive terms, that OLPC can obtain more contribution by starting to do this.
Sugar is free software, and contributing to it is a good thing to do. But don't forget the goal: helpful contributions are those that make Sugar better on free operating systems. Porting to Windows is permitted by the license, but it isn't a good thing to do.
I am typing these words on the XO. As I travel and speak in the coming weeks, I will point to it in my speeches to raise this issue.
Copyright 2008 Richard Stallman
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