Posted by: Nathaniel | June 16, 2008

OLPC, Microsoft, Opensource and customer questions

There is a really interesting conversation that started last week at outsourcing expert Steve Hamm’s blog Bangalore Tigers at BusinessWeek. The conversation is about the One Laptop Per Child program founder’s decision to agree to ship units with a version of Microsoft’s XP operating system rather than the open-source, Linux based system.

http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/blog/globespotting/archives/2008/06/olpc_the_open-s.html?campaign_id=rss_blog_bangaloretigers

For some, this is a complete sell-out. They believe that both the ethos of the open source movement and the reduced cost by employing a Linux system are fundamental to the project, and that there is something deeply and fundamentally wrong with a project that was primarily about education now being used to help Microsoft gain a toe-hold in a new market that could otherwise them sink them later.

For others, this is a business strategy that makes sense. They suggest that many countries weren’t interested in the computers unless they ran Windows. This group suggests that getting more units out is the most important task they have and that if this helps they’re willing to do it.

I tend to side with the former group.

I think that helping students learn how to use open-source, Linux based software makes much more sense in a world where titans like Microsoft feel the pressure of the barbarians at the gates. As more and more of the world joins the IT revolution, innovation will come from outside far more than inside and companies like Microsoft will either have to change their models away from making money off of proprietary platforms in traditional ways. Open-source platforms with global standards can unleash not only mash collaboration but new forms of value that can be monetized in new ways and better, more robust competition between competing services.

I’m also a bit skeptical that the big non-starter for governments was a Windows-based platform when so many Linux applications mimic or envelop windows platforms (openoffice.org being the best example).

Finally, I do think this brings up an interesting question of value, customer and ownership. Even if governments ARE saying “no unless it runs windows,” do they get to speak for 6 year olds? In some ways, the government is speaking for the market. And while ostensibly this is because they market can’t speak for itself, not being in a position to purchase the computers for themselves, this smacks of certain charitable enterprises in which an external actor decides what the recipient of aid needs for him or herself because he or she doesn’t – for reasons of money, smarts, capacity, whatever – have the capacity to decide on their own.

What do you think? Is this an apt comparison? Do you think it was a good decision on the part of OLPC?

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