Technology

Microsoft Joins One Laptop per Child


The nonprofit organization's alliance with Microsoft will bring Windows XP to the poorest children, and could give OLPC a much-needed boost

Just four months after a messy breakup with tech giant Intel (INTC), the One Laptop per Child organization on May 15 announced an alliance with another tech behemoth—Microsoft (MSFT). The two will make Microsoft's Windows XP operating system available on OLPC's XO laptop, which was designed to help educate the world's poorest children.

The tieup was no surprise. OLPC has long talked about putting a Microsoft operating system on its little green-and-white machine. But the announcement comes at a critical time, bolstering the viability of the nonprofit organization in the wake of Intel's departure and high-profile resignations by key employees.

With Microsoft on board, tens of thousands of educational software applications designed to run on Windows can now be used on the XO, making it more useful in schools and acceptable to government ministries. "This will have a huge impact on the psychology of OLPC. It brings us more into the mainstream of people's minds," says Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC's founder and chairman.

Microsoft says it got involved in the project partly at the urging of education officials in several countries. "A lot of people would like to see Windows running on that cute little green-and-white laptop," says James Utzschneider, general manager of marketing at the Microsoft division that promotes affordable computing in developing nations. He listed Egypt, Guatemala, Romania, and Russia.

Wider Dominance?

While the alliance improves the XO's chances for mass acceptance, it also drew the ire of long-time OLPC supporters who saw the machine as a counterweight in the developing world to Microsoft's dominance of computer operating systems. Walter Bender, the longtime president of OLPC who resigned last month, says Linux, the open-source operating system now on the XO, is a better choice because it is constantly being improved, whereas Windows XP, first introduced in 2001, is no longer being updated by Microsoft. Also, he says, "I believe that the culture of freedom and self-determinism that comes part-and-parcel with free and open-source systems is synergistic with the culture of learning that OLPC is trying to espouse."

OLPC is the brainchild of Negroponte, the long-time head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. He launched the high-profile initiative three years ago to provide millions of inexpensive laptops for use in schools in developing nations. The idea was to provide a laptop that students could use at school and at home, experimenting and collaborating all the while. Negroponte's goal was a $100 price tag, but the current version of the machine costs just under $200.

Negroponte had originally predicted that 150 million of the laptops would be distributed in schools by the end of this year. So far, only a few tens of thousands have been ordered. Some countries have balked at the price, and others chose low-cost alternatives from commercial PC companies. Bender departed amid philosophical differences with OLPC officials who he says steered the organization from its early emphasis on learning by doing. In his view, OLPC became overly focused on shipping computers in large volumes. Negroponte says the organization hasn't lost sight of its educational philosophy.

Adapting the Operating System

Microsoft has spent more than a year adapting Windows XP for the XO laptop. Preparations include adding software that supports some of the features of the XO, including its electronic books, a writing pad, camera, and a display screen that is easily readable outdoors. Trials of the laptop running Windows are supposed to begin in June in a half-dozen developing countries. Adding Windows boosts the laptop price by about $3.

The first version of the OLPC's XO laptop was launched last November with the Linux operating system paired with a new graphical user interface called Sugar. Initially, Windows XP will be loaded on the computer via a 2-gigabyte flash card, the type used in most digital cameras. In the future, OLPC plans to create a version that will be preloaded with both Linux and Windows, so users can easily choose the operating system they want. OLPC also plans to create a version of Sugar to work with Windows.

Ever since Negroponte launched the laptop initiative, he has had on-again, off-again relations with Microsoft and Intel, with top executives of the two companies at times questioning the usefulness of the XO. Intel joined the OLPC organization last year, only to quit a few months later. It said it was pressured by OLPC to stop pushing its own Classmate PC device, aimed at students in poor nations. OLPC accused Intel of denigrating the XO laptop to leaders of governments. Intel denied the allegations.

Rebuilding Confidence

Since then, the nonprofit has been in tumult. Bender and two other top contributors left, and in March, Negroponte revealed that the organization was looking for a chief executive to handle day-to-day management. The former chief financial officer, Charles Kane, was promoted to president on May 2.

The OLPC plans an informational event in Cambridge, Mass., on May 20 that appears to be aimed at reestablishing confidence in its prospects. Negroponte and Kane plan to outline the operational strategy. Government officials from Peru and Uruguay, the first countries to begin large-scale deployments of the laptops, will share their experiences with counterparts from other countries.

The Microsoft deal gives Negroponte a major selling point to use as he addresses this group and others like it the world over to persuade more countries to adopt his laptop.

Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York and author of the Globespotting blog.

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