Nicholas Negroponte's proposed $100 laptop has won him the enmity of Bill Gates, according to John Markoff's article in the New York Times. The founder of MIT's Media Lab has been working full-bore on the idea of a laptop cheap enough to be distributed free to the developing world's children. His prototype is a brightly colored machine with a power crank, wireless connection and running open source software.
It's that last item that might be behind Microsoft's alternative offering - a cellphone-based PC, which Gates mentioned at CES last month.
Craig Mundie, a Microsoft vice president and chief technical officer, said in an interview here that the company is still developing the idea, but that both he and Gates believe that cell phones are a better way than laptops to bring computing to the masses in developing nations.
"Everyone is going to have a cell phone," Mundie said, noting that in places where TVs are already common, turning a phone into a computer could simply require adding a cheap adaptor and keyboard. Microsoft has not said how much those products would cost.
But apparently Negroponte's decision to use open source software instead of Window CE has caused anger in the man whose done as much as anyone to improve conditions in the developing world.
It is not clear to what extent Negroponte's decision to use free open-source software in the laptop instead of Windows spurred the alternative plan from Microsoft. But Gates has been privately bitter about it, and Mundie has been skeptical in public about the project's chance of success.
"I love what Nick is trying to do," Mundie said. "We have a lot of concerns about the sustainability of his approach."
Negroponte says the open source decision was based not on cost but openness.
Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, had also offered a free version of his company's OS X operating system, but Negroponte rejected that idea because the software was largely not open-source, meaning people could not get free access to software and its source code, which they could then modify. Negroponte said in an interview here that he had resolved to use Linux not because it was free but because of its quality and maintainability.
"I chose open source because it's better," he said. "I have 100 million programmers I can rely on."
Still, there are real concerns about how the PCs will go online. Cellphone connectivity is fairly widespread while Internet is often under strict government controls and very expensive.
The Media Lab researchers are also planning to approach an upcoming meeting of the international consortium overseeing GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) for cell phones about setting up a data standard that would allow low-cost and educational use of wireless network capacity.
"We call the concept 'standby bits,'" Negroponte said, explaining that the concept is similar to the way standby passengers on airlines can travel when there are empty seats. The laptops would send and receive Internet data only when higher-paying commercial data was not being transmitted.