Saturday, May 17, 2008

OLPC has been assimilated!

No, not by the Borg, but by Microsoft! In news that's been expected for some time now, it's been announced that the XO laptop will be made available with Windows XP as well, with even project founder Nicolas Negroponte admitting that in the future they may well end up being XP only. For the time being, though, the plan is for the machines to dual boot to either Windows XP or the customized Linux OS. Not that XP hasn't been customized - apparently Microsoft have done a bit of work to get their bloated OS (and this is XP; imagine Vista!) working on the modest XO hardware, and it's still not perfect - the innovative mesh networking technology doesn't function with it. The hypocrisy of this move from MS is astounding - this is the company that repeatedly slammed the OLPC project during it's initial phases as being a fundamentally flawed idea. Apparently with Microsoft software on the laptop, it's now a great idea!

I can kind of understand why this happened. The project hasn't come close to the $100 pricepoint initially envisaged - it's at around $180 now, plus orders haven't exactly been brisk. Apparently there was a lot of demand from governments for XP. Again, understandable - Windows is in a sense the de facto standard operating system, and many governments were reluctant to invest in laptops that weren't equipped with the OS used by most of the world. They figure their kids should have the opportunity to gain experience with Windows in order to be globally competitive. Fair enough. They should also realize, however, that by investing in Microsoft for a low cost today means an investment in Microsoft for a much higher cost in the future as well, when everyone growing up with these laptops is conditioned to associate their costly, properietary, and excessively restrictive software with 'computers' in general, and is thus incapable of using any alternatives. The continued establishment of Microsoft tech is like a vicious circle where everyone needs to use it because it's established, but it becomes all the more established because everyone keeps using it. Which is exactly why Microsoft will be well pleased that Windows XP is on these laptops.

Negroponte's explanations for this move make sense, but at the end of the day it can't be seen as anything but capitulation by OLPC to corporate behemoths. The big bad MS wins again, sinking their claws into the future knowing that the low price of this basic XP will guarantee continued revenue in the future.

OLPC is still a great project though, just one that's been sullied a bit by this news. Let's also not forget the influence it's had in helping to establish low cost laptops as a viable and quite lucrative market; indeed, even Microsoft has got in on the act to ensure their presence in this growing sector. The other good news is that the innovative user interface developed for the XO will live on as a multi platform technology no longer tied down to one kind of machine! Every cloud has a silver lining, I suppose.

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