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Why No Microsoft Software for $100 Laptop?

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Scott Simon reflects on the laptop designed for children in the developing world and why Microsoft won't make its software available for the computer.


This week, the Gates Foundation announced they'll give $100 million dollars to promote medical research in Southern Africa. The foundation says it hopes to encourage bold, even unorthodox methods to defeat AIDS, malaria and other afflictions.

Next month what could be another important contribution for the developing world finally becomes available. The XO, a small, light, cheap, sturdy computer developed by Nicholas Negroponte in the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that they hope will make a laptop available to millions of children of the developing world.

The goal was to make a computer that costs just a hundred dollars. Right now, it's closer to 200. They hope that mass production can bring that down.

I've been able to see an XO. It is a charming and remarkable little machine -green, seamless - to protect it from rain and sand - and at just three pound, light enough for a child to carry. It operates in just two watts of power and can be charged through a small solar panel or a crank, making it practical in deserts, villages and jungles, where electricity is scarce. The XO has a built-in camera, microphone, Word processor, Web browser, calculator, textbook reader, music, games and painting programs. It can connect to the Internet. Something called mesh networking lets it connect with other laptops nearby to share words or images instantly.

The potential benefits in the developing world could transform million of lives. Textbooks can be put into the laptop at the touch of a keystroke, avoiding the whole expense of printing, binding and delivering schoolbooks. The camera module permits teachers or health care workers to send home messages and instructions to parents who cannot read. Parents can send messages back. That children's laptop can be not only a child's means to an education but a family's link to the world.

One keystroke will reveal the underlying code of almost any XO program. This will permit students to not only learn the language of digital information but to write their own programs. This is why, so far, the XO cannot run Windows programs. Mr. Negroponte says he hopes the XO could eventually run Windows but open sourcing, as it's called, is critical to the whole usefulness of the XO.

Windows is famously a closed or proprietary source. It's part of what made Microsoft and Bill Gates wealthy enough to give so many millions to worthy causes. The Gates Foundation insists that the scientists who receive its grants share their findings. They believe that open sourcing of information spurs and sharpens medical research. But the company from which its assets are derived prefers to do business as usual.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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