$100 laptop effort lurches forward

Researchers at the MIT Media Laboratory made a splash a while back when they unveiled their plans for a $100 laptop PC intended to bring Internet connectivity and computing to students in third-world countries. Today, the New York Times has an enlightening report on the progress of that effort, along with a sense of how political conflicts have slowed progress in certain respects.

What jumped out at me about the report was the question of what operating systems these cheap PCs might use. Obviously, keeping the total cost of a laptop to under $100 will require shaving off a large chunk of the per-system software costs, because hardware costs just aren't as malleable. Both Microsoft and Apple have been suggested as possible OS providers, and either one would have to offer big price breaks for the sake of the initiative. However, it sounds like the principal man behind the effort, Nicholas Negroponte, has a different agenda on his mind:

According to several people familiar with the discussions, Microsoft had encouraged Negroponte to consider using the Windows CE version of its software, and Microsoft had been prepared to make an open-source version of the program available.

Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, had also offered a free version of his company's OS X operating system, but Negroponte rejected that idea because the software was largely not open-source, meaning people could not get free access to software and its source code, which they could then modify. Negroponte said in an interview here that he had resolved to use Linux not because it was free but because of its quality and maintainability.

"I chose open source because it's better," he said. "I have 100 million programmers I can rely on."

So poor kids in Africa will have to wait a little longer to receive a laptop PC with a sub-standard GUI and crappy font kerning because Nick is an OS commie? Ok, so that's a harsh assessment, but one has that initial reaction upon reading this passage. I like Linux for many things, but I wouldn't wish it on first-time computer users as their primary desktop OS.

I really do hope they get things ironed out and they do some innovative work with this effort that helps bring computing to new parts of the world. Merely observing this stuff from afar, though, I get the distinct impression that Bill Gates and others are right to suggest that a cell phone with connections for an external display and keyboard is more likely to succeed as a terminal for low-cost Internet connectivity in third-world nations.

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