↬ I'm Ivan Krstić (@radian). This is a personal site; I speak for no one but myself.

The paradox of choice

Microsoft’s John Gunabal (left) and Bohdan Raciborski (front) demoing Windows XP on the XO to Walter Bender (in green), Richard Smith (in red) and myself. Picture via Microsoft’s James Utzschneider.

People were already making a fuss about Nicholas’ claim that we’re working with Microsoft on supporting dual-boot with Windows XP, and now Bruce Perens writes a lachrymal — if entirely misinformed — missive about OLPC selling out to Microsoft.

Let’s briefly clarify the facts. Bruce claims “Microsoft approach[ed OLPC] with money and technical help,” which is incorrect on both counts. OLPC is not taking Microsoft’s money, and we are not being assisted in any way technically by the company. Bruce also claims that “original OLPC prototypes ran Debian … Once Red Hat offered money and resources, Debian disappeared from the system. Now it’s Red Hat’s turn to disappear.” So many falsities in so few words! OLPC XO prototypes never officially ran Debian — we were Fedora-based from the moment the first α-test motherboards arrived at the Cambridge OLPC office. (I’ve been a Debian user since before Bruce replaced Ian Murdock as the Debian project leader in 1996, so the choice of Fedora was not mine; this does not, however, change the facts.) It’s true that one could always run Debian unofficially on XO hardware, which remains the case today — and in fact, I rolled a customized, XFCE4-based, unofficial Debian 4.0 “etch” build for the XO just last month. With Red Hat continuing to sit on our board of directors and employing several full-time engineers working on core OLPC software, it strains credulity to claim they’re about to disappear from the project.

What, then, is true?

Yes, we’ve been meeting with Microsoft about their XP port. OLPC has not dedicated resources to this work. We are not contributing engineering time to it, considering it as part of our strategy, or getting ready to replace Sugar. The extent of our involvement is having several meetings with the Microsoft staff and allowing a Microsoft-paid technical writer to work from our offices in order to produce specifications that will aid the port — on the condition that the specifications are also released publicly (they’re being posted to our wiki.)

The meetings are important. Microsoft decided to do a port, and they would have done it with us or without us — but they did something remarkable: they asked us to work with them so we don’t wind up with walled gardens. They did not set out merely to make XP boot on the XO and declare victory; they actually want to partake in as much of our learning philosophy as they can. They won’t make XP open source, but they’re building mesh support, going to great lengths to support our security and theft deterrence model, and working on allowing Sugar and Windows XOs to collaborate and share seamlessly.

The folks running this work on the Microsoft side are good people. They have left no doubt in my mind that they believe in what we’re doing and want to play along. I am also confident we have made the right decision at OLPC by embracing their work instead of stonewalling it.

To set the dual-boot issue straight: Microsoft has not been working on an actual, side-by-side dual-boot system. We’re jointly making it possible to install XP on an arbitrary XO — subject to the constraints of the Bitfrost theft deterrence system — and then convert the machine back to Linux easily. I have made it clear that the XP port will not receive my security signoff without this Linux rollback feature, and have no reason to believe it won’t be implemented.

One commonly-forgotten truth about OLPC is that our commitment to open source and free software isn’t religious, but pragmatic — we believe Linux and Sugar constitute a better software platform and, much more importantly, a better learning platform. Our existing customers agree, and we think new ones will continue to make the right decision while being reassured by the availability of Windows as a fall-back. To claim we should prohibit XO customers from running XP in the interest of freedom is to claim everyone should be free to make a choice — as long as it’s a choice we agree with.