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Gates’ MIT Alternative A Diversion?

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Microsoft has done an about face with its support of MIT Media Laboratory’s ambitious “One Laptop Per Child” program, recently stating that cell phone accessories would provide a cheaper alternative, according to the New York Times. Critics say the suggestion is convenient in light of the fact that the Windows CE operating system was rejected by project founder Nicholas Negroponte in favor of open source Linux.

The NYT article by John Markoff entitled “Microsoft Would Put Poor Online by Cellphone” was also run on CNet under the more accusatory headline “Are politics delaying the $100 laptop?”

MIT’s dreamy project, sponsored by major tech companies like AMD and Google, aims to develop rugged, light-weight, durable, rubber-bound, and hand-crank powered laptop computers and get them into the hands of youngsters in the poorest of areas.

Negroponte has raised $20 million to pay for its engineering, has procured a production commitment from Taiwanese computer manufacturer Quanta Computer, and is nearing a final $700 million agreement from the governments of Thailand, Egypt, India, China, Brazil, and Argentina.

All seems to be going well for a dream that some feel is impossible to achieve. Just a normal hinge for a laptop screen can run as much as $35. If the project developers can get around cost-considerations like that, it may still have a hurdle yet, if Microsoft chooses to flex its corporate muscle.

The Redmond software giant, already known for leveraging strategic industry choke points, is no friend of open source operating systems like Linux. And judging from comments by Craig J. Mundie, Microsoft’s vice president and chief technology officer, Microsoft is already launching an alternative plan to reach the poorer populations of emerging markets. Mundie told Markoff in an interview “that both he and Mr. Gates believed that cellphones were a better way than laptops to bring computing to the masses in developing nations.”

Coincidentally, Gates just demonstrated the “cellular PC” at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, by linking a cellphone to a television and hooking up a keyboard to it as well.

Not only is the timing of the suggestion interesting here, but also that it follows Negroponte’s decision to go with a Linux OS over Windows and the Mac OS X. Negroponte cited Linux’ quality and the large number of contributing programmers, not that it was free, as the reasoning behind the choice.

Linux has been a thorn in Microsoft’s side for quite some time. The largest concern seems to have been the trend of governmental entities that have been choosing open source programming. In September, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts decided to switch over to open standard software. In Europe, Microsoft barely skirted losing licensing fees in Munich, Germany and Paris, France. Paris cited the cost of training municipal employees to use the new system, while Munich temporarily suspended switching its 14,000 computers to open source after patent issues arose. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer even interrupted a ski trip in Switzerland to try and talk Munich’s mayor out of the switch.

Patent infringement concerns could be a trump card Microsoft has yet to use against its open source rival. According to ZDNet, Linux potentially infringes upon 283 patents, including 27 that belong to Microsoft. Many of the others are owned by Linux allies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel-all of whom became conspicuously distant from Linux, perhaps after pressure from Microsoft.

“Basically, Microsoft is going to use the legal system to shut down open-source software,” said HP’s Gary Campbell in a 2004 article. “”Microsoft could attack open-source software for patent infringements against (computer makers), Linux distributors, and, least likely, open-source developers.”

Microsoft has been losing young users to open source projects for a while now, and an expansive project like MIT’s would further push Microsoft out of emerging markets.

“The problem here is that Microsoft is dying the death of 1,000 cuts (from Open Source apps attacking them in every category) while sticking to a business model (packaged software) and pricing structure that no longer works anywhere outside of the western world,” said a well-known Web-developer who preferred to remain anonymous.

From a public relations standpoint, it would be unwise for Microsoft to launch a direct attack on MIT’s philanthropic project. They can however, suggest a clever alternative.

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Gates’ MIT Alternative A Diversion?
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