The NSW Government's release this week of an expressions of interest tender to give low-cost laptops to every senior public school student in NSW is a big step, but will these systems be Windows or Linux?
Rolling out from 2009 onwards, the program will mean a whole generation of students will be a great deal more technically literate, which can only be a good thing. However, the cost per device (only $500) is going to be a challenge for vendors to meet.
At this price point, there is little ambiguity about the fact that the devices will be netbooks. This leaves an obvious question: will these netbooks run Windows XP or Linux?
In the rough IT environment which is public schools, Linux has a lot going for it.
In the rough IT environment which is public schools, Linux has a lot going for it. Firstly, with only $500 a computer to spend, not having to fork out for an XP or Vista licence will give vendors significantly more scope to spend on support, additional hardware, or network equipment.
Another hidden, but significant saving, will be a reduction in malware, spyware and viruses. Supplying Windows-based systems will mean costly subscriptions to security vendors, and all the support work that comes from endlessly killing malware that slips through the net. Malware for Linux, on the other hand, is a drop in the ocean by comparison. This is a big deal, as wirelessly networked schools are potentially a festering pit of malware.
Linux has reduced compatibility, but given that the Department of Education and Training wants to strictly lock down the netbooks, this may be an advantage. Teachers would not doubt be relieved that Linux-based systems won't be able to play the vast majority of games (other than internet-based Java or Flash games and a few others), meaning school machines will be left mostly for school work.
The use of Linux-based systems, combined with other open-source options like Open Office 3 also means no licence auditing, a huge potential headache for stretched school IT administrators. Given that the devices will be uniform, drivers shouldn't be a big issue. Open source also opens up a possibility of creating school-specific Linux distributions which suits the needs of the classroom.
If the government does decide to make its new "learning devices" Linux-based, the implications for open source in Australia could be huge.
Fancy a copy of "Sydney Public School Linux", anyone?
On the flip side, a Windows XP-based system has several disadvantages, beginning with the mass of malware out there for Windows-based machines. Putting that aside, there is also the problem that a Windows XP licence limits the specifications of the device.
Microsoft has previously said it would only continue to supply Windows XP for low cost "netbooks" as long as they could limit the specifications of the device, to stop competition with Vista. This is why netbooks have close to uniform specs, and specifically never more than 1GB of RAM. Thus Windows XP limits the ability of school administrators to future-proof or upgrade the netbooks.
Given this, it seems to me that Linux would be the natural choice. If the government does decide to make its new "learning devices" Linux-based, the implications for open source in Australia could be huge.
Giving every student who pass through the public school system a Linux system would be a huge boost to the OS and open source — and competition is always a good thing.
What do you think?