OLPC did sell out, folks

Recently, the One Laptop Per Child project announced that it was going to include Microsoft’s Windows XP alongside the Linux-based Sugar OS it had previously been shipping as the only operating system option for the XO Laptop.

There has been a lot of buzz in the Linux community about how this is a sellout on the part of Negroponte and the OLPC project, and rebuttals have been that it’s about the government’s choice to use an operating system (Windows) it wants, the project’s always been about getting computers into the hands of kids (not necessarily open source operating systems), and people who think OLPC has sold out are just Linux fanboys upset because Linux lost out.

No, the definition of sellout in this case isn’t “Went with an operating system we don’t like.” It’s “Went with an operating system it deliberately did not go with before on principle.”

From Free Mac OS X spurned by $100 laptop creators:

Seymour Papert, a professor emeritus at MIT and one of the project’s founders, said the scheme had refused Jobs’ offer on the grounds that Mac OS X is a proprietary system.

Papert told the WSJ: “We declined because it’s not open source,” adding the $100 laptop creators will only choose an operating system where the source code is open and can be altered.

From $100 laptop ‘will take desktop Linux global’:

He said: “AMD is our partner, which means Intel is pissing on me. Bill Gates is not pleased either but if I am annoying Microsoft and Intel then I figure I am doing something right.”

Microsoft allegedly offered to build the operating system for the machine but was rejected by the OLPC project. Negroponte added that the project required an extremely scaled-down OS to enable the eventual machines to run at a decent speed, while using very little power. “About 25 per cent of the cost of a laptop is there just to support XP, which is like a person that has gotten so fat that they use most of their muscle to move their fat,” he said.

I’ve added emphasis in both excerpts. The project started out being about allowing children the freedom to explore and have no licensing or proprietary code restrictions. Now, suddenly, it’s become about spreading Microsoft to even more developing nations. That isn’t choice. That’s oversaturation.

If you have an obesity epidemic, and one of the few efforts to encourage a healthy lifestyle gets co-opted by a pro-obesity program, those people aren’t being offered the choice to continue to be obese; they’re being denied the choice to experience a healthy lifestyle. The choice for Linux has continually been co-opted by Microsoft Windows. And now they are well on their way to extinguishing the emerging (previously Linux-dominated) netbook / subnotebook market by also putting XP on the Asus Eee PC and Vista on the HP Mini-Note.

Yes, OLPC sold out. Might it be good for those kids in developing countries to have a weather-proof Windows laptop? Maybe. But that wasn’t really the original goal of the OLPC project at all. Boy am I glad I didn’t participate in the “Give one, Get one” campaign in November.


  1. So, I wasn’t following the news, are they giving governments the option to use windows, or are they ditching linux completely?

  2. Right now it sounds as if they’re going for a dual-boot, but who knows if that’s really going to happen. Given all the compromises they’ve made so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if they took the Linux one off if that was the condition that Microsoft and/or some fearful-of-change governments mind slip into the purchase terms.

  3. My guess is MS brokered deals with ministry officials where, when OLPC went knocking on government doors, they got stonewalled. OLPC was finessed into a partnership with MS, as a prerequisite to doing business with those countries.

    Why else would say, Nigeria, commit to a million laptops from OLPC and then reverse the decision with lame excuses? And the education minister, Dr. Igwe Aja-Nwachuku, told a reporter he needed to compare OLPC’s laptop with MS’s stuff? (Reference: “Politics ‘stifling $100 laptop'” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7094695.stm)

    Kinda silly when one considers that OLPC already had a product in hand, and MS had neither the product nor the technology in hand. Also, is Nigeria’s minister so naive as to believe that MS’s involvement would render a better price for the laptop? Unlikely.

    The spin doctors got to work and what the public now hears is the announcement that OLPC is partnering with MS. Predictable reaction from a select minority: OLPC sold out!

    Conspiracy theory? Nope, just business and politics, as usual. Its truly sad for OLPC and all the wonderful people who worked so hard, but the choice was either do the deal with MS or get pushed to the sidelines.

  4. I think your guess isn’t too far off the truth, Alan, but I don’t see how that precludes OLPC selling out. Yes, they’re in a tough spot right now and may feel a strong push to compromise, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t compromising.

    As a matter of fact, people rarely compromise / sell out unless there is a strong push for them to do so (coercion, bribery, etc.).

  5. While this is an excellent post and I agree completely, I have an off-topic request to make; given your insightful posts into the world of Linux (especially Ubuntu) what do you think of the more ‘hard-core’ versions? I’m considering taking a plunge in deep, cold dark water and installing FreeBSD and I’m wondering where somebody who knows far more than I about open source would place it on the continuum between ‘free-er’ or ‘more work’.

  6. I don’t really know much about the more hard-core versions. I’ve never tried Slackware, Gentoo, FreeBSD, etc. Even Arch and GoboLinux look too intimidating to me.

  7. Sad! I, too, am glad that I didn’t participate in the ‘give one get one’ program, even though it seemed like a good idea.

    Thanks for updating me on this! I’ve lost track of the news lately.

  8. I’ve sent OLPC $$ because I supported the vision of getting these open source machines into the hands of kids. Now I’m just pissed off that they’ve sold the whole thing down the river. MS even said the MS machines will not be dual boot.

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