You see, computer hardware parts don't fail that often. Crashes are more often caused by malfunctioning software, while viruses and other malwares are mischievous software in themselves and can either crash the computer or, even worse, turn the victim computer into a cooperative criminal. All these malfunctioning softwares live in harddisks. An orphanage in a remote village, for example, is unlikely to have enough resources to deal with these problems without continuous outside help. Remove the harddisks, and you remove all these software-related troubles along with the harddisks. The computers by themselves will be forever free from malfunctioning and mischievous software. Think of such a computer as a DVD player, an Wii, a PlayStation, or a digital photo frame. One never worries about "anti-virus protecting" or "disinfecting" or "organizing" or "managing" or "re-installing" these appliances. If such an appliance ever crashes, one just reboots it. You don't need an expert tied up to a village on a long term basis (not even part time) in order just to keep the computers working, in order just to keep these donations of love from becoming hazards to the environment of the very place you want to help.

"How does such a computer work without harddisks to hold its software?" Well, A Wii or a PlayStation is driven by software on a CD ROM. Our computer is driven by software on a usb key (usb stick/usb pendrive). "Ah, but a usb key is an infamous source for viruses." Well, yes if you are obliged to run Microsoft Windows. But our usb keys run Linux. Linux, due to its design philosophy, will still be much safer than Windows even when ("when", not "if") it replaces MS Windows as the most popular operating system. For now, it is 100% virus free, period.

So the idea is to have a small number of diskless computers to be shared by many kids each carrying his or her own Linux usb key. The child sees her own desktop/background/bookmarks and everything, no matter which computer she happens to use. Each child can work like s/he owns one computer most of the time. One or two recovery usb keys should be kept in the hands of a care taker or an older, responsible child. It should not be used on a daily basis. If anyone's usb key ever crashes for whatever reason, it can be restored from the recovery usb key. The recovery process is slightly more involved than dragging and dropping files, but is orders of magnitude easier than trouble-shooting a computer and/or installing device drivers (if you still keep these CD's for each donated computer) for each peripheral after re-installing MS Windows.

And the recovery process does not need any serial number, is in fact also the cloning process, and can be repeated for any number of new kids on new usb keys, legally. That brings us to the even more important moral reason for choosing FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software), to which GNU/Linux and the companion educational programs belong. To quote Richard M. Stallman in Why schools should exclusively use free software:

School should teach students ways of life that will benefit society as a whole. They should promote the use of free software just as they promote recycling.
The most fundamental mission of schools is to teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors—to cooperate with others who need their help.
Teaching the students to use free software, and to participate in the free software community, is a hands-on civics lesson. It also teaches students the role model of public service rather than that of tycoons.

It is sad that not enough teachers have thought through or even read these profound statements. There is, however, one higher level of ethical importance built on these considerations for a charity to spread GNU/Linux and other FLOSS instead of Microsoft Windows and other proprietary technologies. A charity surely wants to help the children grow up to contribute to the agricultural and econometric independence of his poor country, than to seduce the kids, and hence their country as a whole, into the mindless upgrade cycle, only to serve the monopolist who even publicly welcomes piracy as an opportunity for seeding new addictions. It is bad enough whether the charity obtains legal copies of the proprietary softwares from donation or by paying for them using donated money. It is unforgivably worse if the charity installs illegal copies of the software for the kids, thereby reducing their respect for the law.

[click on the image for an enlarged view]

Speaking of education, there are way more educational values in a 4GB Tux usb key than even in a Microsoft Windows computer full of hundreds of gigabytes of pirated software. Limited by the length of this article, I will just show you a collection of screenshots here. You could also look at larger pictures by moving the mouse to the lower right corner of my slides (in Traditional Chinese) and flipping through the first dozen of pages. You will begin to understand why MIT Prof. Nicholas Negroponte considers it criminal to teach children word/excel/powerpoint. You will also see why I, as a member of OFSET (Organization for Free Software in Education and Teaching), am more excited to have an audience of math/physics/chemistry/..., teachers than one of computer specialists, in my frequent speeches about FLOSS.

But there are even more advantages of adopting this under-popularized technology, especially for an international charity hoping to help in aspects such as culture and human rights besides economy.

  1. Volunteers from different countries and cultures can each use his or her own language to contact family and friends at home. (Think about "volunteer tourism".)
  2. What applies to volunteers, applies to tourists, too. The village will be able to offer "Mother Tongue Internet" services to foreign visitors as an extra minor incentive to their local tourism. (Please search if the copy you read doesn't have a link.)
  3. In the long run, it will foster a localized computer maintenance industry. People bring their malfunctioning usb keys to a local "computer doctor", who charges money because she installs any desirable free software from the internet for the benefit of the client instead of forcefully selling him drug-like addictive proprietary technology for the benefit of the drug dealer, I mean the software vendor who uses non-open file format with legal traps to lock down the addicted users.
  4. It may eventually help preserve local minority cultures by preserving their languages, which is one good reason for multicultural countries like India to use GNU/Linux even when there is a high migration cost. (See paragraphs about "language" in that article.)
  5. Someday, the mobility and the complete independence of usb keys (from host computers) will protect the human rights and freedom of speech of the citizens against government censorship and/or surveillance.

So volunteers and computer donars, please bring this article to the attention of a charity you know of. Charity workers, please contact your local LUG people (Linux User Group) for technical help. The technological solutions these LUG (or FLOSS) people offer may not be exactly the same as what I propose here. (see slax, and optionally plus mk-boot-usb for technical details.) For example, Sugar on a Stick, a technology related to the MIT's charity project OLPC, is also a bootable usb key. Its emphasis is more on the logic, programming, and social network aspects of education, but I was told that interesting geometry learning tools such as Dr. Geo II may also be included. Some may offer FreeBSD or Open Solaris as equally powerful alternatives to GNU/Linux on a usb key. Yet others may propose DRBL or LTSP for different technical considerations. The latter two technologies are equally ethical and educational choices as they are also FLOSS, although arguablly they may have less powerful social impacts in the long run.

Charity is a spiritual endeavor that not only empowers the helped, but also inspires and elevates the helpers and the spectators like me. When it comes to the choice of computer software for donation, it requires a conscious and moral consideration of the chosen technology's ethical and philosophical foundation as well as its long term social consequences. Many of us in the FLOSS community look forward to contributing to your great cause if you make the right choice.


  1. In fact, removal of harddisk is not essential. The important point is not to rely on it as the main operating system. The harddisk can still serve as a storage.
  2. This article was inspired by an event: Students of Chang-Hua Senior High School from Taiwan visited El Shaddai Orphanage in Swaziland to join the charity efforts of the NPO "Heart for Africa". The education part was not very successful from my technical point of view. So I only report it in Traditional Chinese. There is a short clip about this event (not about the concept in this article) on YouTube.
  3. Interested in more articles about diskless computers + bootable tux usb keys? Here are a few more article about "usb boot".