Tina K. Russell

May 19, 2008

Pax Microsoftus

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 12:59 am

Microsoft Joins Effort for Laptops for Children – New York Times
After a years-long dispute, Microsoft and the computing and education project One Laptop Per Child said Thursday that they had reached an agreement to offer Windows on the organization’s computers.

“I think some people, including Walter, became much too fundamental about open source,” Mr. Negroponte said.

In an e-mail message, Mr. Bender wrote that he left the project because he decided his efforts to develop and support the Sugar open-source learning software “would have more impact from outside of O.L.P.C. than from within.”

Outside the constraints of working on a single hardware platform, like the XO laptop, his work, he wrote, should “lead to a broader base, more options, and a better set of tools for children.”

This really bothers me. I think a lot of us felt that Linux was one of the organization’s ends for legitimate reasons. I’m sure Microsoft is entirely legitimate in wanting to offer its operating system at a steep discount to developing countries, but I know that Steve Ballmer is grinning with dollar signs in his eyes at the prospect of raising the entire world on Windows and not merely the “developed” part of it.

The whole idea of this simply offering “choice” is a red herring. The whole problem of Windows is that it does not allow choice. By promoting Windows use in developing countries, they’re doing legitimate promotion of a product. However, they also want the entire country’s infrastructure, training, and education based on an operating system that you cannot easily switch away from and has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, towards any kind of interoperability. Microsoft wants you to believe that their operating system monopoly is a “natural monopoly,” that interoperability is easily achieved only by one standard OS lingua franca. This is dubious when Windows requires a proprietary end-to-end chain of OS components in order to function, and Microsoft has fought open standards for information interchange, such as OpenDocument, every step of the way. “Linux,” meanwhile, refers only to a software kernel and a set of standards that anyone can use to develop an operating system.

So, yeah, I’ve always supported OLPC because, besides the primary goal of bringing educational tools to all the world’s children, I’ve always appreciated OLPC’s bulwark against Microsoft’s quest to ensure that the rest of the world is squirming in the grip of its bloated, malformed, insecure OS. It’s not fair competition, it’s leveraging a monopoly position, and I’ll start believing that Windows offers “choice” when Microsoft fully documents the Windows API, promises to stop making vague software patent threats towards independent competitors (or sow slanderous FUD campaigns aimed at potential Linux customers), works toward supporting other filesystems on Windows (on Ubuntu, I can do anything I want to my Windows partition, but Windows won’t give my Ubuntu partition the time of day), makes the Windows installer stop eating the user’s bootloader (thus preventing competing OSes from loading), implement OpenDocument in good faith in their Office products and quit trying to lock users into a monopoly, stops promising to media companies that they will be able to have control over users’ computers that the users themselves do not have, and make its software work with competing OSes rathing than making them do all the work, then maybe I’ll believe that Microsoft believes in genuine choice. As far as I’m concerned, though, Linux was always a means and an end for One Laptop Per Child and I don’t want to see Microsoft covering the developing world in its proprietary blanket and then jacking up the prices as soon as the countries develop. With Linux, the user is in control, and can switch to other operating systems as soon as he or she wants… in fact, Linux works hard to play nicely with Windows, through support of dual-booting in installers and bootloaders, projects like Samba for fileservers, and support for binary Office formats in office programs. With Linux, you learn expertise that you can take anywhere. On Linux, you can choose the OS you want because all the components are indentifiable and interchangeable. Windows asks you for an unbroken string of Microsoft purchases to ensure compatibility, and I don’t want them to spread that poison abroad, or see OLPC abetting that.

And I’m not even a Richard Stallman purist or anything like that. I happen to find his views as of late repulsive. I simply believe that Windows fails the test of a sustainable operating system, that it will probably be dead or dying in ten years, and I don’t want a new generation of children around the globe have their skillsets fixed in one company’s OS the way it is here. Sure, Microsoft is giving away the OS for cheap, but what about when they decide to stop doing that? What about when you need support or maintenance? Sorry, because Windows is closed-source, there’s only one company that can do any of that. There’s no community around enhancing Windows or making it better. Windows’s outdated programming model has made it slow, bloated, and insecure. It’s not because Microsoft is a bad company, it’s because their model of an OS produced entirely on one corporate campus, with no outside input, is an aging dinosaur with no place in modern computing. The sad collapse of Vista shows just how incapable Microsoft is at polishing their own product through iteration, and with its closed-source model, if Microsoft does not act on security glitches or outdated technology, you are well and truly screwed.

Linux, by its very philosophy, encourages users to take control and make the OS their own. It’s easy to program on a Linux machine because highlighted text editors, compilers, interpreters, and often introductory learning material are all right there. You usually get an office suite and high-quality graphics software for free just for entry. I can’t tell you just how empowering it was to try Ubuntu and find just how much of it was rooted in an implicit trust of me and giving me the tools to make stuff, to make my own world, to impose my will on my computer. After years and years of using Windows, which seemed to have a mind of its own and would always try to guess what I want (“it looks like you’re…”) this empowerment was nothing short of a revelation. After years of falling behind in the world of computer science, my childhood excitement for computers withered away by years of cryptic error messages and unhelpful OS design, I was finally back on the cutting edge. It’s the feeling that’s lasted all the way until now, one that sparks upward with each six-month Ubuntu release, each right on time, faster, more efficient, and filled with more features and programs than before. I want to spread that feeling to children all over the world, I want to show them that they are in control, I want to give them an OS that gives them the power rather than selling it to them piece by piece.

I have no problem with commercial software, I’m just upset at the tendency for vendors like Microsoft to convince people through intimidation that if they’re not using Windows, they’re being left behind. To the contrary, if you’re using Windows, you’re spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars just to get to the level of basic functionality present in your average Linux distribution’s default setup. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that most people don’t percieve Windows as an individual purchase, they merely recieve it with their computers, paid for half by a “Microsoft tax” on each computer purchase (about $50), and half by subsidization through “bloatware,” the aggravating trial software that your computer is installed with, slowing it down and bombarding you with intrusive ad messages.

Linux is simply an OS, a family of OSes, developed in good faith. That’s why I want to spread it to the world, and why I wish it were still OLPC’s exclusive platform. This is for entirely pragmatic reasons, okay? I couldn’t care less about Stallman’s rants about how evil proprietary software is or whatever. I simply think Microsoft is acting in bad faith in the moment, and we should get kids started on an OS that provides choice rather than one that restricts it, and one that will teach the valuable IT skills–yes, Linux is the lingua franca of computer science, and that’s great because Linux is an OS that gives you freedom, is developed to standards, and lets you switch whenever you like–rather than the ones everybody already has.

Okay? Sheesh.

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