Linux's Education Push

Courtesy of CRN It looks like the education space could be the first, real place where Linux could grab beachhead in the desktop PC market. Take a look at Indiana, for example. In about a year, through a public school grant program, State of Indiana education officials have moved at least 22,000 students from Windows-based desktops to Linux-based desktops. That led Microsoft to hold up a study by IDC's Government Insights unit, after it pointed IDC analysts to five public school districts in the Hoosier state that are still standardized on Windows. Those districts are staying away from broad adoption of Linux for kids' workstations for a variety of reasons including stability, availability of applications and, not insignificantly, because the grownups running IT in the school districts know Windows better than Linux. "If the school district has money to spend on their own, most of them are buying Windows systems," John Samborski, vice president of ACE Computers of Arlington, Ill. told me last week. ACE has a contract to supply desktops to Indiana schools. But kids obviously don't have as long of a history with Windows as the adults. What about them? I wanted to find out for myself so I put Linux to the test with the two most demanding public school students I know -- my own kids. I loaded Xandros Professional 4 onto an old Compaq Presario 2500 (I tried SLED 10, Ubuntu and an earlier version of Xandros, but Xandros Professional 4 did the best job of recognizing my wireless card and connecting to the Internet.) I put the notebook in front of my 11-year old daughter, bookmarked her webmail URL, set her up with a Google Docs account for her homework, and showed her how to use Pandora to play her favorite music. And then I walked away; a half-hour later I walked back and she was knee-deep into a Flash-based game on Disney.com via her Firefox browser. She looked happy. She later wrote a draft of an email on Google Docs and then sent it to me. Among other things, she wrote, "Thanks." Later in the day, I sat my 10-year old son down in front of the laptop. I set him up the same way as his sister: webmail, Google Docs, Pandora. I left him alone for a half hour and, lo and behold, he found some video games, too. (It was a Saturday so I didn't crack down on the time wasting.) "So Dad," he asked. "What is the difference between Linux and Windows?" I tried to explain but it was a waste of breath. "What difference do you see?" I asked back. "Nothing, really." Xandros Professional 4 lists for $99, versus anticipated Windows Vista pricing of $199. But Google Docs and OpenOffice are free, Firefox just works, and with Skype for Linux and sites like Meebo.com -- which offers free, web-based instant messaging on all the big services -- communication applications are free and completely available on Linux. (I'm sure there will be a point where I just get my daughter a Skype account instead of letting her tie up the home phone line talking to her friends after school.) Teachers and school administrators will continue to opt for Windows for, among other reasons, because they know Windows and they know it works. But teachers and school administrators also have kids, and when they open up their own wallets to buy technology for them they'll begin to ask themselves what's the difference between Linux and Windows. And then their answers might sound similar to a 10-year old boy's.

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