Who decides which OS makes it onto an OLPC?

A former ZDNet blogger, George Ou, blogged some thoughts on recent developments at OLPC and Larry Dignan's and my concerns about Windows XP on the XO. His blog was titled "Children won't have a say on whether Windows goes on the OLPC but so what?

A former ZDNet blogger, George Ou, blogged some thoughts on recent developments at OLPC and Larry Dignan's and my concerns about Windows XP on the XO. His blog was titled "Children won't have a say on whether Windows goes on the OLPC but so what?" and he asked, in a nutshell, why children should actually be involved in the decision-making process related to OS choices.

In fact, they really aren't in a position to decide. That's where us Ed Tech folks come in. It's our job to decide what makes sense for our users, whether students, teachers, or staff. My real problem with OLPC's offering of XP on their laptops is that it won't be people in the business of making educational technology decisions choosing Windows or Sugar/Linux for a deployment. Rather, it will be politicians and bean counters, whose knee-jerk reaction will be to give kids the perceived "real world" OS of Windows XP.

This isn't to say that Windows can never have a place in ultra low-cost PCs. There are plenty of occasions when someone may say that Windows simply satisfies user requirements better. Unfortunately, it is a rare politician who thinks in terms of user requirements.

George asks me the following questions in his blog:

* Would you flip your classrooms to the Sugar interface today if I gave you absolute authority over this matter? * How do you think your High School students would vote if they have tested both operating systems?

To some extent, these questions need to be answered together. The Sugar UI is not designed for older children; rather, it promotes collaboration and easy content creation for the K-8 set. Older and more experienced users might find it novel, but limiting. Thus, to answer the second question, I expect that they would balk at the use of Sugar/Linux, both because they aren't the target audience and because they just aren't too big on change.

Would I flip high school classrooms to Sugar? Again, no, because the OS is designed for kids, not soon-to-be adults. Would I flip elementary or middle school classrooms? Only on a limited basis because our district has invested a fair amount of time and money into math and English software that requires Windows or Mac clients and servers. There are a few settings that don't use these applications (special education, for example) that might really benefit from Sugar, regardless of the device; in these areas I would give it strong consideration.

Therein lies the problem with the XO/Windows marriage. I answered George's questions based on a clear understanding of and experience with Sugar and its capabilities, intent, and limitations. As Negroponte has pointed out, a lot more governments would get on board if the XO simply ran Windows. Why? Not because of legacy software compatibility, since most of these kids have never used a computer before. Not because the kids are too old; deployments are aimed squarely at the target audience. No, it's because Windows is perceived as necessary, when the real goal should be to get kids accessing the Internet, creating content together, and accessing textbooks (something Sugar does quite well).

George also points out how poorly mesh networking actually works (meaning that Windows, which doesn't support mesh, is not a handicap). By his tests, the use of mesh to extend the range of a single Internet access point by using each laptop as a repeater is remarkably inefficient compared to some slick tricks that can be done to extend the range of commodity routers. He's right, but misses the real value of mesh: ad hoc collaboration in the absence of an access point. Intel's tests and research with mesh on their second-generation Classmate PCs (again, only supported in their Linux deployments) suggests that kids and software developers can find quite a few ways to exploit mesh networking and further advance the constructionist educational ideals that we all believed were behind OLPC's work.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a lot of hardware failures and deployment problems (regardless of OS), a lot of disgruntled community members, and, potentially, more laptop sales of questionable value. Classmates running Edubuntu are just looking better and better.