Monday, January 30, 2006

Charity conflicts with Business

It was bound to happen. All the talk about the information divide and that the poor in society do not have access to the same amount of information as the rich led to the idea of the One Laptop Per Child also known as the $100 Laptop.

It's a nice idea, but like many nice ideas when it is brought into the real world it threads on the toes of many vested interests. Case in point is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who is one of the most charitable people on the planet, regularly giving vast amounts of money to help the poor of the world and winning Time Person of the Year for his efforts, along with his wife Melinda, and Bono. With his operating system on 90% of the worlds computers he can afford to be very charitable. But the OLPC represents a significant threat to this dominance simply because it will run on a free, open-source, Linux based operating system.

Bill offered to give a free open-source version of Windows CE to the project but this was rejected, as was a similar offer from Apple with OS X. In the end the company that gets its operating system on this PC will have an amazing advantage over the other companies since people tend to stick with the operating system they know best and if kids learn Linux from an early age they will probably use it as adults. This could devastate the Windows and OS X markets.

Bill has now offered an alternative idea, give every kid a data capable cell phone. The phone could be connected to a TV and a keyboard. Of course the phone would run Windows CE. This is where Bill's two sides come into conflict. Deep down inside he has to know that a cell phone cannot replace a laptop, no matter how many bells and whistles you give the phone and how few you give the laptop. Unfortunately he must also know the danger it would pose to his business and I suppose rather ironically his charity work.

Perhaps the best thing Microsoft and Apple could do is jump on board the OLPC bandwagon and work hard to make the project a success, while at the same time working to make the machines configurable. No one says the laptop can run only one OS? Why does one company have to win this particular battle? Should the kids of the world learn one way of using a computer and not be able to change? Why not bring out a Windows kit and an OS X kit that could be installed on the laptop to replace Linux? Make the kits free and let the kids decide. Then its up to the companies involved to improve what the machines can do and there-by win over the kids.

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