OLPC in Hot Water with Intel and Microsoft

Nicholas Negroponte's XO laptop--frequently referred to as the $100 laptop due to its once-anticipated price--should have been the blockbuster success story of the decade. Designed solely to aid children in developing countries, the XO is being sold basically at cost, and is more a humanitarian project than a commercial endeavor. However, corporate competition--not to mention higher-than-expected costs--has gotten in the way of Negroponte's dream.

Part of the problem is that the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization which builds the XO went with hardware and software designs that alienated the biggest computer companies on earth. Early on, chip making giant Intel was bypassed for AMD, and Microsoft's Windows OS was passed on for a cheaper open source Linux system. As a result, the initial XO laptop isn't as efficient as it could be, and it doesn't use a software system that is familiar to about a billion people worldwide. (In my own experience with the XO, I've found the system's user interface to be particularly bewildering, actually.)

Since that time, however, the XO has withered in the marketplace, and OLPC has yet to score a major sale. After starting its own PC aimed at developing countries--the Classmate notebook computer--Intel briefly joined forces with OLPC and actually developed a prototype XO based on Intel chips. But that marriage fell apart within the past few weeks. Negroponte says the breakup was Intel's fault, as the company "failed to deliver on any of the promises they made \[and\] was unwilling to work cooperatively with OLPC on software development. The best Intel could offer in regards to an 'Intel Inside' XO laptop was one that would be more expensive and consume more power, exactly the opposite direction of OLPC's stated mandate and vision."

Insiders say the rift was really about Intel's Classmate PC. Apparently, OLPC wanted Intel to drop the device in favor of the XO. But since the Classmate is a different kind of device, it seems like the two could have coexisted in the market. It's unlikely Intel would drop an existing product simply so they could also support a partner project that doesn't necessarily directly compete with it.

Intel isn't the only computer industry superpower that's at odds with OLPC. After being skipped over for the XO OS because of cost concerns, Microsoft began working with OLPC last year to deliver a version of Windows XP and Microsoft Office that could boot and perform effectively on the tiny machine's limited resources. Microsoft had arrived at a solution that delivered both systems on an SD card, because the XO supports SD expansion. It planned to begin testing this setup outside of Microsoft this month.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas this week, Negroponte announced that Microsoft's OS on a card would provide XO users with a "dual boot" option where they could choose between Linux and Windows when the system starts. There's just one problem with this scenario: Microsoft says that's never going to happen. Instead, it expects Windows to be the only choice on the XO once this system is completed. And the company is unclear why Negroponte would have made such a claim.

"While we have investigated the possibility \[of dual booting on the XO\] in the past, Microsoft is not developing dual-boot Windows XP support for One Laptop Per Child's XO laptop," a Microsoft statement reads. "As we announced in December, Microsoft plans to publish formal design guidelines early this year that will assist flash-based
device manufacturers in designing machines that enable a high-quality Windows experience. Our current goal remains to provide a high-quality Windows experience on the XO device."

I support Nicholas Negroponte's plan to bring computing to the underprivileged, and think the XO is a fine step in the right direction. But it seems, increasingly, that his inability to work with the biggest players in the industry will do more harm than good and stymie his organization's chances of making the XO a success. It's unclear why he continues to sabotage OLPC's industry relationships--and thus the XO--in this manner. There's little doubt that both Intel and Microsoft are among the biggest bullies in computing, but both are courting PR disasters by fighting with OLPC. A little compromise on all sides will go long way here.

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