Monday, April 30, 2007

OLPC sells out?

Has the OLPC project sold out? It seems that the XO-1 $100 laptop (now priced at $175 with the expectation that the price will eventually drop) will soon be able to run MS Windows as well.
However, Negroponte disclosed that XO's developers have been working with Microsoft Corp. so a version of Windows can run on the machines as well.

The project has long been hailed as a triumph for open source principles, but this latest development has been met with some criticism (on Slashdot, at least). Some have pointed to the recently beefed up specs and subsequent higher price tag as a sign that the project has bent to the will of Microsoft and changed specs to support the resource hungry Windows and associated software.

Couple that with the fact that Microsoft have announced a $3 package of Windows and productivity applications for "governments that subsidize student computers", and we might see a scenario where the OLPC becomes primarily a Windows based machine instead of the Linux based one many had been expecting. After all, governments probably won't mind paying $3 on top of the $175 dollars to acquire the de facto standard operating system. Which would mean that a whole new generation will be weaned on Windows, on which they will be dependant when they grow up, which will further Microsoft's stranglehold on the OS market. Heck, if these countries become more developed, implement stronger IP laws, and foster societies that have more disposable income, Microsoft may actually make money off of them directly in addition to maintaining their ubiquity!

It's still too early to say what will happen, but the announcement has left a bitter taste in my mouth. While I can understand why some might think it's a good idea to allow these laptops to run what everyone else is running so that the skills of the laptop's users will be transferable, I think the sentiment overlooks the long term consequences. The OLPC project could have been a pioneer in effecting a movement away from proprietary software to open source and (more importantly) open standards; at the least, it would have been a worthy attempt. Now it seems that it'll be yet another tool to help Microsoft become even more ubiquitous, which will continue to hinder genuine competition and innovation in the industry.

At the end of the day, most of the good things about the XO-1 still remain true, and I still think it's a great idea and hope it succeeds. Making technology available to more people in this manner is a noble endeavour. It'll just be a crying shame if one possible significant benefit of the project never sees fruition.

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