Can Bill even give his software away? A hundred dollars says he can't

The most curious effect of the $100 laptop isn’t how it’s affecting the very poor, more what it’s doing to the very rich

We cannot say when the chief architect at Microsoft last fretted over a hundred dollars — if indeed he ever has. But reports say that Bill Gates offered to make a version of Windows CE open source in his attempt to get it into the $100 MIT laptop, and that he's very disappointed that it didn't go in. Likewise, Steve Jobs boosted OS X — and failed. Red Hat got the gig. Red Hat is very happy.

There's nothing odd about Red Hat giving away operating systems: the company wouldn't be where it is today otherwise. But when Bill and Steve compete for the same right, something peculiar is happening. Could it be that they've seen the light and decided that open source is a solid foundation for healthy developments in IT?

Of course not. This is charity, and they're happy to donate corporate largesse to the poor — in the same way that Bill is spending billions of his personal wealth on health improvement projects in the developing world. We don't know, and may never find out, what offers were actually made: it could be that the plans to sell the laptops for $200 in the developed world created insuperable problems, or just that Linux has many more free and open software resources.

The next step is to get telcos and wireless network operators falling over themselves to donate the necessary. Negroponte is already agitating for 'standby bits' — the ability to use fallow bandwidth in commercial networks in the same way that standby airline tickets soak up spare seats.

The equivalent of the open source movement in telecommunications is mesh networking: the wise operator will see involvement as an opportunity to develop capabilities in this area and to work out sustainable infrastructure ideas in places where the right to wireless doesn't come with a £20 per megabit access fee. That'll be everywhere, sooner rather than later: you don't even have to see it as charity.

We remain sceptical about the MIT $100 laptop for three reasons: first, whether it can be built to that price; second, whether the technologies in it will work; and third, whether it's appropriate for the target market. We hope we're wrong; giving people information and the tools to use it is the most subversive act possible against poverty and oppression. But if it forces powerful concerns to rethink the world in which they act and the consequences of those actions, then it will have a catalysing effect for reform nonetheless.


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