It's finally official: XP is coming to the XO

Microsoft's participation in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative has been fraught with mystery and disinformation from the get-go. But on May 15, Microsoft officials finally gave the OLPC project Redmond's official blessing.

Microsoft's participation in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative has been fraught with mystery and disinformation from the get-go. But on May 15, Microsoft officials finally gave the OLPC project Redmond's official blessing.

Up to this point, OLPC Chief Nicholas Negroponte preannounced Microsoft's every move on the OLPC front (and sometimes not quite correctly). But on May 15, Microsoft and the OLPC announced in tandem that Microsoft is "joining" the OLPC project.

Yet again, exactly what this means is a bit murky. Microsoft has been testing for months now whether it could get XP to run on OLPC XO laptops. Seemingly, according to a new blog entry by James Utzschneider, Manager of Microsoft’s Developing Markets Unit General Manager, Marketing and Communications, Unlimited Potential Group, the tests were successful. But now it sounds like there are going to be more tests. From Utzschneider's May 15 blog post:

"Today Microsoft and the OLPC are announcing support for Windows on the OLPC XO computer.The two organizations will work together on several pilot programs in emerging market countries starting next month, and the offering will RTM in August or September. Initially it will only be available in emerging market countries where governments or NGOs are subsidizing the purchase of a large number of PCs for students, but there is the possibility of making this available for other customers through a broader set of channels at a later point in time."

(A company spokeswoman clarified: These new trials are "substantial" ones. Her full statement: "In December we said Microsoft would begin limited field trials in January with the hopes of widespread availability in the second half of 2008. The announcement today of fields trials in June concerns substantial field trials.")

Today's official announcement follows much public hand-wringing (and some resignations) by former OLPC members over Negroponte's decision to allow Windows to be ported to the XOs. There's been much speculation as to whether Negroponte had agreed to allow Windows to supplant completely Linux on these machines.

I asked the aforementioned spokeswoman whether we'd see any Windows-only OLPCs. Her answer:

"Laptops will be installed with one of two operating systems - Microsoft Windows OR Linux-based Sugar OS at the factory, based on the preference of governments and NGOs. In the case of these trials, the XOs will ship with Windows. In addition to these choices, in the future OLPC intends to develop ... the ability to have both on the same machine."

The OLPC initiative has become a political battleground, with some Linux backers advocating that the group should mandate that Linux be the only operating system available on the machines, in order to give it an advantage over Windows in the developing world.

The "purity" issue is a complex one. Ivan Krstic, Former Director of Security Architecture for OLPC (who resigned in March of this year), has an interesting post on the tensions between Windows and Linux in the OLPC arena. An excerpt from his May 13 post that caught my eye:

"OLPC should be philosophically pure about its own machines. Being a non-profit that leverages goodwill from a tremendous number of community volunteers for its success and whose core mission is one of social betterment, it has a great deal of social responsibility. It should not become a vehicle for creating economic incentives for a particular vendor. It should not believe the nonsense about Windows being a requirement for business after the children grow up. Windows is a requirement because enough people grew up with it, not the other way around. If OLPC made a billion people grow up with Linux, Linux would be just dandy for business. And OLPC shouldn’t make its sole OS one that cripples the very hardware that supposedly set the project’s laptops apart: released versions of Windows can neither make good use of the XO power management, nor its full mesh or advanced display capabilities."

Microsoft's Utzschneider, not surprisingly, has a different take, claiming that there are governmental and nongovernmental users in developing nations who actually like, want and require Windows on these machines.

Bottom line: Whether Linux backers want it or not, Windows XP (not the more resource-intensive Vista) is coming to an XO laptop out there this year.