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‘$100 laptop’ idea isn’t so simple

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — One of the most ambitious aspects of the “$100 laptop” project for schoolchildren in developing countries is the machines’ open-source software platform, designed to be intuitive for kids.

That’s why many people were taken aback last week when the founder of the nonprofit laptop project, Nicholas Negroponte, announced that buyers of the machine will be able to add Windows, the ultimate in proprietary software.

However, Microsoft Corp. says it’s uncertain whether it can fit Windows on the laptops. Will Poole, who heads Microsoft’s emerging-markets group, says the limited storage space (recently upped to 1 gigabyte of flash memory) and other original elements on the One Laptop Per Child program’s “XO” computer aren’t welcoming for Windows.

“I don’t know how to get the thing to run on less than 2 gigs,” he said. Plus, at least 10 custom drivers — which tell an operating system how to interact with hardware — need to be designed, Poole said.

Why does this matter? Because One Laptop Per Child is still negotiating with several governments to finalize orders for at least 3 million of the machines, the level at which the project’s mass-distribution plans kick in.

And with the computers’ price now up to $175 ($100 is the long-term goal), some officials might want Windows as a potential backup if the machines’ alternative interface doesn’t capture children’s fancy as envisioned.

Negroponte seemed to deliver a definitive yes to that question: “We will run Windows,” he said last week. Asked for elaboration, a spokesman for Negroponte wrote in an e-mail: “He was stating a fact — not a hope or a desire.”

But Poole said the answer should have been maybe: “I cannot make any promises,” he said. “There’s work still to be done. People should not bank on having Windows.”

Complicating the mix is an emerging little computer for the developing world from Intel Corp. — the Classmate PC, which can run Windows or Linux. Intel expects its price to fall below $250 by the middle of the year and just signed a deal to sell 700,000 Classmates in Pakistan — one of the countries that One Laptop Per Child hopes to reach.

Meanwhile, Microsoft recently announced a $3 Windows “starter edition” package for international governments that subsidize student computers.

After Negroponte’s comments last week, representatives from his group objected to The Associated Press’ description that the nonprofit was “working with” Microsoft so Windows could run on the computers. Spokesmen for the project insisted that Microsoft was acting on its own accord, and that Microsoft got “beta” versions of the XO computers just like a lot of other companies have.


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