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Negroponte: Windows key to OLPC philosophy

OLPC chairman says laptop project could not promote openness if it was closed to Microsoft.

While the news that Microsoft is developing a version of Windows for the so-called "$100 laptop" has caused some consternation, One Laptop Per Child Chairman Nicholas Negroponte has said the project could not promote openness if it blocked Windows.

Will Poole, Microsoft corporate vice president, told Reuters last week that the software giant is working on a stripped-down version of Windows XP to run on the ruggedized laptops destined for schoolchildren in developing countries. Poole was initially quoted as saying it could be ready in a few months, though Microsoft said that Poole was misquoted and that while the company is hopeful to get Windows onto the machine, much work remains.

Nicholas Negroponte Nicholas Negroponte

The educational XO laptop has been built using free and open-source software--part of the One Laptop Per Child project's drive to allow XO's young users to modify the laptop's software as they see fit.

The OLPC's philosophy of openness is behind its decision to allow Microsoft software on the machines, according to Negroponte.

"It would be hard for OLPC to say it was 'open' and then be closed to Microsoft. Open means open," Negroponte said.

According to Negroponte, the XP announcement is the latest development in a long-running collaboration between the project and Microsoft.

"Microsoft has always been working on Windows for the XO. We put the SD (secure digital) slot into our laptop over one year ago, for them," Negroponte said, explaining that the SD slot allows the XO's memory to be expanded, making it easier for users to run Windows.

Windows on XO "has not only been happening with our consent, but (also our) collaboration. Some of the first engineering models from any given build go to them," Negroponte said.

Negroponte's latest comments may anger some elements of the open-source community--an audience that he has courted extensively in his publicity drive for the XO. Speaking at Linux specialist Red Hat's annual user event in 2006, Negroponte appeared almost triumphant to have excluded Microsoft and Intel from the OLPC project.

"AMD is our partner, which means Intel is pissing on me. Bill Gates is not pleased either, but if I am annoying Microsoft and Intel then I figure I am doing something right," he said to an audience of open-source enthusiasts in Nashville.

Subsequently, Intel and OLPC teamed up and have started working together.

Negroponte added that the project required an extremely scaled-down OS to enable the eventual machines to run at a decent speed while using very little power. "About 25 percent of the cost of a laptop is there just to support XP, which is like a person that has gotten so fat that they use most of their muscle to move their fat," he said.

Despite Microsoft's involvement, OLPC remains principally an open-source project, according to Negroponte. The machines come with an operating system that uses elements of Red Hat's Fedora Core 6 and includes a browser built on XULRunner, the runtime environment used by Firefox.

Orders for around 3 million of the machines are believed to have been received to date.

Jo Best of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney. ZDNet UK's Andrew Donoghue contributed to this report.