Report: OLPC may eventually switch from Linux to Windows XP

Insistence on open source scares people away, Negroponte says
  • Eric Lai (Computerworld)
  • 24 April, 2008 07:50

One day after the resignation of the One Laptop Per Child's president was publicly revealed, the educational project's founder and chairman says the group's XO laptop may evolve to use only Windows XP as the operating system, with open-source educational apps such as its home-built Sugar running on top.

OLPC's founder Nicholas Negroponte also told the Associated Press on Tuesday that an insistence upon using only free, open-source software had hampered the XO's usability and scared away potential adopters.

For instance, the Sugar graphical user interface aimed at children "grew amorphously" and "didn't have a software architect who did it in a crisp way," he said. Also, the laptops do not support the latest versions of Flash animation, which is widely used on children's and educational Web sites.

"There are several examples like that, that we have to address without worrying about the fundamentalism in some of the open-source community," he said. "One can be an open-source advocate without being an open-source fundamentalist."

Negroponte also said that the dual-boot version of the XO that can run Windows or Linux will soon be ready. He had already revealed in January that the group was working with Microsoft on a dual-boot version of the XO.

The admission that the XO laptop might eventually run completely on Windows, however, will further dishearten many of the non-profit's strongest supporters. They viewed the OLPC and its championing of free, open-source software for ideological and cost reasons as way to challenge Microsoft's dominance.

But the OLPC's moves could also make the XO more attractive to adopters, both educators as well as affluent Western consumers buying XOs for themselves or their children.

About 500,000 of the XO laptops have been sold, below previous targets of millions by the end of last year. Due to the lower-than-anticipated volume, the XOs have been sold for about US$200 each, or double its ambitious initial price target of US$100 each.

Moving to Windows could also remove the barriers put up by both Microsoft and Intel, which offers the competing Windows-based Classmate PC.

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A source close to the OLPC said the group is still only showing off laptops running Sugar and Linux to prospective customers, but has indicated its willingness to offer XP if large educational customers deem it necessary for application-compatibility reasons.

Outgoing president Walter Bender told the blog OLPC News via e-mail on Monday that he didn't know of any plans to create a Windows XP-only version of the XO.

But Bender, a former colleague of Negroponte's at MIT, told AP on Tuesday that he was planning to launch an independent effort to get Sugar running on Linux computers other than the XO.

Though Negroponte has taken shots at Microsoft and Intel in the past several years, the OLPC has also hinted its willingness to abandon its ideological opposition to proprietary software such as Windows.

Negroponte "just wants to see lower-cost computers in kids' hands," OLPC board member Michael Evans said last April, after Microsoft began to offer Windows and Office for use on conventional PCs for US$3 to students in developing countries. "If that means other companies filling this need, he'd still be happy as a clam. Our mission is not to beat Apple, Dell or Microsoft."

Ironically, Evans is vice-president of corporate development for Red Hat, the Linux vendor whose Fedora version of its Red Hat operating system underpins the XO today.

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The space dilemma

Other low-cost ultra-portable laptops, most notably the Asus Eee, are starting to be made available in both Linux and Windows XP flavors.

And earlier this month, Microsoft vowed to keep XP alive for another 2 years only for low-cost laptops such as the Eee and HP's MiniNote 2133.

But that's not the slimmed-down version of XP that Negroponte told the AP Microsoft had been working on for about a year, apparently with the XO in mind. Instead, for most low-cost laptops, Microsoft is licensing the full Service Pack 2 version of Windows XP Home, which gobbles up 1.1GB of disk space. Moreover, patches and updates such as Service Pack 3 will add about 165 MB to XP each year, according to Microsoft ().

The current XO, meanwhile, comes with only 1 GB of storage. That's more than enough for the existing environment, which includes the Sugar GUI and stripped-down versions of Firefox, Fedora, and other open-source software. Together they take up only 200 MB, leaving 800 MB for students' files.

Using only stripped-down versions of open-source apps has its downsides. For instance, the XO comes with Gnash, an open-source media player, instead of Adobe's Flash player, which is free but not open-source.

Gnash is compatible with Flash apps only until version 8, according to OLPC's own online documentation. Many popular childrens' Web sites such as and require Flash 9.0.

Moreover, OLPC's documentation notes that Flash sites often take 1 GB of free disk space or more -- again, more than is available.

But to accommodate Flash and/or Windows XP, the OLPC may have to equip the XO with a larger solid-state drive, raising the laptop's price again.