Richard Stallman (president of the Free Software Foundation) has been something of a firebrand in the IT community. Even open source advocates don't always agree with his hardline stances. However, one has to wonder if his latest take on the OLPC project and its possible move to a Windows platform isn't right on.
Stallman has now switched his main computer to an XO and even went so far as to delete the firmware for the wireless chip so that the machine would be 100% open source. Who needs wireless, right? As he notes, though, in a blog he posted Tuesday about his switch and the possible Windows Sugar port,
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.
He goes on to talk about giving kids the ability to learn about computing on such open machines in ways that they cannot using closed-source software:
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.
I don't know if I'd compare Windows to cocaine or heroin - that seems a bit much. I do think he's on the right track, though. Part of what makes the XO (as well as similar Linux-based efforts with Intel's Classmate) valuable is the ability of local OEMs and developers to mold the software to fit the needs of the communities in which the devices will be deployed. Need language support for an obscure dialect? Develop it. Want to include software with that resonates with a particular culture? Develop it. You can't just rewrite Windows to support Tagalog.
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.
What do you think?