XO Laptop Goes Windows

Microsoft and the One Laptop Per Child Foundation have reached an official agreement to produce versions of the foundation’s XO Laptop that run Windows XP.

The move is intended in part to overcome resistance to the XO among bureaucrats in countries where OLPC would like to distribute the laptop. “The people who buy the machines are not the children who use them, but government officials in most cases,” OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte told the New York Times today. “And those people are much more comfortable with Windows” than with the XO Laptop’s current operating software, a variant of the open-source Linux operating system that supports a learning-oriented graphical interface called Sugar.

The Windows announcement will likely add fuel to the increasingly public debate among some of the leading minds behind the XO over whether open-source software is fundamental to the foundation’s mission to provide the world’s children with technology that facilitates learning. The division has led to the departures of at least two high-profile staffers in recent weeks, including former software president Walter Bender and former director of security architecture Ivan Krstić.

In an interview with Xconomy three weeks ago, Bender, Sugar’s lead architect, criticized Negroponte’s budding alliance with Microsoft as a sign that the foundation had abandoned its original mission to shake up the educational computing business.

“It’s a lot easier to cater to people’s comfort than to be disruptive,” Bender said. “Nicholas had that wonderful quote in BusinessWeek about a month ago—that OLPC is going to stop acting like a terrorist and start emulating Microsoft. If you read between the lines, the idea is to stop trying to be disruptive and to start trying to make things comfortable for decision-makers. And that’s a marketing strategy, and one that I think has been adopted by many laptop manufacturers. Personally, I think that the customer is not always right, and that a role that a non-profit can play is to try to demonstrate better ways of doing things and let the market follow them.”

The XO Laptop running Microsoft WindowsIn a bitter blog post published May 13, Krstić charges that Negroponte’s deal with Microsoft shows that that he is uninterested in education, and simply wants to sell more laptops. “I quit when Nicholas told me—and not just me—that learning was never part of the mission,” Krstić writes. “The mission was, in his mind, always getting as many laptops as possible out there.”

At the same time, Krstić says that he is not opposed to the idea of a Windows version of the XO, as long it’s not the only operating system available for the device. According to the Times, OLPC’s agreement with Microsoft is non-exclusive, and there will continue to be a Linux-Sugar version of the XO, as well as a dual-boot version (though this will add roughly $7 to the price of the $200 machine).

Update 5/15/08 7:25 p.m.: Microsoft has just published a press release on the OLPC agreement. The release states that “trials of the XO running Windows are planned to begin as soon as June in key emerging markets.” Negroponte is quoted in the release as follows: “From the beginning, the goal of OLPC has been to use technology to transform education by bringing connectivity and constructionist learning to the poorest children throughout the world. Today’s announcement, coupled with future plans for a dual boot version of the XO laptop, enhances our ability to deliver on this vision. In addition, OLPC will work with third parties to port its user interface, called ‘Sugar,’ to Windows.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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