Microsoft has challenged an altruistic scheme to get pared-down computers into the laps of African school children by preparing its own software for sale on the machine.
One Laptop Per Child, intended to help bridge the digital divide between rich and poor parts of the world, is soon to release a trial version of a computer developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
It is expected to go into production in the first quarter of the new year and sold for a little over $100 a piece. It is to be shipped with a tailored version of Red Hat Linux, a free open source system.
Microsoft did not confirm reports that it was paring its operating system for sale on OLPC machines, but said: "We continue to speak with Mr Negroponte (OLPC chairman) about ways that Microsoft can help in the future.
"At Microsoft we have many different solutions designed to meet the needs of people in developing nations, such as programs like Partners in Learning, the Local Language Program, and products like Windows XP Starter Edition, and Microsoft FlexGo. We believe we need many different solutions as an industry to lessen the digital divide for the 90 per cent of the world who don't currently benefit from access to technology," Microsoft said.
One Laptop Per Child president and co-founder of the MIT media lab Walter Pender, confirmed he had talked to Microsoft about its plans to port to OLPC machines.
"They said, 'we want to get windows on your machine, will you send us one'. We said, 'sure'," he said.
"We are working with Red Hat to develop an environment and at the same time Microsoft is working on a port for themselves for the laptop," he said.
"That's not what we're doing. What we are doing is a Linux distribution - open source. What Microsoft are doing is a port of Windows. We'll work with anyone who wants to port their software to our machine," he added.
The significance of Microsoft's plans was noted by the UK's Green Party this week when Siân Berry, its principal speaker, said in a statement that it was an act of "unacceptable bribery".
"Open Source tools are a way to let the Global South develop their own knowledge economies. Microsoft want to restrict the greatest profits in the knowledge economy to already established software corporations like them. By installing their programs on these laptops they hope to create market domination and vendor lock in," she said.
Not everyone sees it that way, as Microsoft chairman Bill Gates noted in March when he criticised OLPC for offering a second-rate machine.
Nevertheless, Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria and Thailand have all expressed an interest in the OLPC machine and none, said Pender, had said no because they wanted beefy machines with Microsoft software.
If Microsoft didn't get its software onto OLPC machines the result might be the opposite of Berry's warning - that is, it could be locked out of prosperous new markets. But this is not a commercial battle, it's a philosophical one.
OLPC is happy to have Microsoft or any other profit-making firm sell software for its machines. What is more important to it, however, is that it provides a means for less developed countries to avoid getting locked into technology that, it is argued, might restrict their creative and commercial freedoms.
"Having a machine as closed as the ones Microsoft has been advocating forever would be antithetical to a lot of the goals of OLPC - which are openness and freedom for users," said Benjamin Mako Hill, an MIT propellerhead who worked on the OLPC software.
An open source system, the theory goes, would empower those communities that used it by removing the need to be tied into a commercial software sales model. Hence, it would shift the power to those places by giving them the means to create, modify, and repair their own software, encouraging the development of local expertise.
Clearly, not everyone who uses an open source computer is interested in learning how to fiddle with the software code that makes it operate. But Hill envisages a network of local experts, perhaps independently certified, who could provide the technical means to settle the open source computers into a society.
The alternative could constrict the development of local skill, commerce and intellectual property, the open sourcers argue.
It is a question of whether the development of IT in African markets will be branded Microsoft or will progress independently, according to its own nature. ®