The latest issue of the Boston Review has an interesting essay by Richard Stallman, the father of GNU and the Free Software movement. Stallman takes great issue with OLPC's recent switch to allow the machine to become a platform for running Windows. [OLPC - the "One Laptop per Child" project, is working on developing a low-cost, connected laptop for educating the world's children.]
Stallman was initially a proponent of OLPC. Now that OLPC has enabled it to run with Windows, he argues:
... the main effect of the OLPC project—if it succeeds—will be to turn millions of children into Microsoft users. That is a negative effect, so the world would be better off if the OLPC project had never existed.
In the article, he lists the four essential freedoms of free software: freedom to run the program, to study the source code, to distribute exact copies of the program and to distribute modified copies of the program. With these freedoms, he says, users become more powerful; they get access to software that does not include malicious features and does not encourage user dependency.
Windows programs, on the other hand, do not give the user any such powers. As Stallman says,
Windows Vista has features to spy on the user, restrict use of data in the machine, and even attack the user (Microsoft can forcibly install changes in the system at any time). Windows Media Player restricts copying, format conversion, and even viewing of files.
While I have the greatest respect for Professor Stallman and the achievements of the Free Software Foundation - open source has truly changed the world - I wonder if his call for withdrawing support from the OLPC is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
There's little doubt that distributing free software, rather than Windows, on OLPC machines is a worthy goal - it will give a boost to alternatives and help propagate them to different corners of the world. Having said that, the OLPC initiative itself is a far-reaching, historic effort to get real computers, however simplified, into the hands of schoolchildren everywhere at a price that's far more affordable than ever before.
In the long run, the ranks of open source programmers are likely to swell due to this wide exposure to computers at an early age, whether or not it is Windows. And in the meantime, OLPC will provide those children in developing countries who would otherwise not have any possibility of computer access, with the benefits of learning and connecting using computers. As such, I believe OLPC still deserves our support.
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