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 a desire."

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 Windows."

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.

Negroponte told 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 years now."


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