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This week, with orders for its laptop having failed to meet expectations–and the plunging dollar driving up the computer’s purchase price–the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program installed a new president who says that he’ll seek fresh industry alliances to boost the marketability of the maverick machine. OLPC was founded in 2005, with the aim of improving education in poor countries by putting cheap, rugged, low-power laptops in the hands of schoolchildren.

Charles Kane, OLPC’s finance chief and a former software company executive, is stepping into the role of president and chief operating officer following last month’s resignation of president Walter Bender. Bender had adamantly opposed efforts by the organization’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte, to depart from a pure open-source-software approach and include a version of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system on the laptops.

While Kane wouldn’t talk specifics about Microsoft, he made it clear which way OLPC is heading. “The OLPC mission is a great endeavor, but the mission is to get the technology in the hands of as many children as possible,” he said. “Whether that technology is from one operating system or another, one piece of hardware or another, or supplied or supported by one consulting company or another doesn’t matter.”

“It’s about getting it into kids’ hands,” he continued. “Anything that is contrary to that objective, and limits that objective, is against what the program stands for.”

Bender is the architect of an open-source interface known as Sugar, which runs on the Linux operating system and is designed to allow children to easily collaborate on documents, art, music, and other projects. For example, with Sugar, activating a tool that allows two children using different laptops to edit the same document requires a single mouse click. Such novelties suit the interface to the so-called constructionist model of education, in which children learn by collaborating and creating.

Bender says that his biggest fear is that if OLPC embraces Microsoft, it will “become just another laptop company” whose products run Windows and Microsoft-compatible programs. Negroponte says that the organization is working to ensure that Sugar can run smoothly on Windows.

Despite its technical achievements–including extremely low power consumption, innovative software, and extremely low cost–OLPC has sold few laptops, at least relative to its initial ambitions. About 500,000 machines have been delivered; early national adopters include Uruguay and Peru. In early 2006, however, Negroponte was predicting sales of more than 100 million machines by this year.

One reason for the slow uptake, Negroponte says, is that the existing computer systems of some government and educational bureaucracies around the world run on Windows. And in some countries, including Egypt, he says, the lack of Windows compatibility stalled interest. “When I went to Egypt for the first time, I met separately with the minister of communications, minister of education, minister of science and technology, and the prime minister, and each one of them, within the first three sentences, said, ‘Can you run Windows?’” Negroponte says.

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Credit: David Talbot

Tagged: Business, Microsoft, open source, laptops, OLPC, Sugar, Nicholas Negroponte, Windows XP

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