Microsoft Role Complicates '$100 Laptop' Project
One of the most ambitious aspects of the "$100
laptop" project for schoolchildren in developing countries
is the machines'
open-source software platform, designed to be intuitive for kids.
That's why many people were taken aback last week when the founder of the nonprofit
laptop project, Nicholas Negroponte, announced that buyers of the machine will
be able to add Windows, the ultimate in proprietary software.
However, Microsoft Corp. says it's uncertain whether it can fit Windows on
the laptops. Will Poole, who heads Microsoft's emerging-markets group, says
the limited storage space (recently upped to 1 gigabyte of flash memory) and
other original elements on the One Laptop Per Child program's "XO"
computer aren't welcoming for Windows.
"I don't know how to get the thing to run on less than 2 gigs," he
said. Plus, at least 10 custom drivers -- which tell an operating system how
to interact with hardware -- need to be designed, Poole said.
Why does this matter? Because One Laptop Per Child is still negotiating with
several governments to finalize orders for at least 3 million of the machines,
the level at which the project's mass-distribution plans kick in.
And with the computers' price now
up to $175 ($100 is the long-term goal), some officials might want Windows
as a potential backup if the machines' alternative interface doesn't capture
children's fancy as envisioned.
"We have had requests from government officials who are looking at that
device, to ask us if it can run Windows," Poole said.
Negroponte seemed to deliver a definitive yes to that question: "We will
run Windows," he said last week. Asked for elaboration, a spokesman for
Negroponte wrote in an e-mail: "He was stating a fact -- not a hope or
But Poole said the answer should have been maybe: "I cannot make any promises,"
he said. "There's work still to be done. People should not bank on having
For his part, Negroponte wasn't touting Windows itself as much as user choice.
He stressed the educational theories behind his project's original interface,
which is open-source so as to let children tinker with it. He also said government
ministers had not really been asking him about Windows on the machines, citing
Egpyt as a rare exception. But he acknowledged that the potential to run Windows
could reduce the risk for some buyers.
"He's playing to some purchasing minister somewhere," said Wayan
Vota, who directs the Geekcorps international tech-development organization
and follows the laptop project closely at his OLPCNews blog. Vota added that
he hopes no XO buyers switch to Windows, because he believes Microsoft's software
would be unable to utilize many of XO's innovations, including its radical power-saving
capabilities and wireless networking functions.
Complicating the mix is an emerging little computer for the developing world
from Intel Corp. -- the Classmate PC, which can run Windows or Linux. Intel
expects its price to fall below $250 by the middle of the year and just signed
a deal to sell 700,000 Classmates in Pakistan -- one of the countries that One
Laptop Per Child hopes to reach.
Meanwhile, Microsoft recently announced a $3
Windows "starter edition" package for international governments
that subsidize student computers.
After Negroponte's comments last week, representatives from his group objected
to The Associated Press' description that the nonprofit was "working with"
Microsoft so Windows could run on the computers. Spokesmen for the project insisted
that Microsoft was acting on its own accord, and that Microsoft got "beta"
versions of the XO computers just like a lot of other companies have.
"OLPC has no working relationship with Microsoft nor does Microsoft get
any special treatment," said a statement from One Laptop's president for
software and development, Walter Bender. "They are just another software
company interested in the project. OLPC is aware that Microsoft wants to create
a Windows platform for the laptop, but OLPC is not involved in that project
in any way."
Certainly, Negroponte's and Poole's differing reports about Windows on XO indicate
the camps are not exactly on the same page. But it's unclear whether they are
as distant as the public-relations statement would hold.
a Linux convention in April 2006 that he had been discussing with Microsoft
how Windows could run on the computers -- which is why he was displeased when
Bill Gates pooh-poohed the laptop effort.
More recently, Negroponte has been quoted as saying the laptops got an SD port
-- where Secure Digital cards can be inserted, expanding the memory available
-- so Windows could work. (Bender contradicted that, saying the SD port was
added to provide extra space for photos taken with the computer's camera.)
"It is true that we have been working together," Microsoft's Poole
said. "We have been having active, high-level conversations going on two