The One Laptop Per Child Foundation, of Cambridge, will next month start distributing a version of its XO laptop that will run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. While the move has long been expected, it represents a major shift for OLPC, which has relied on the free Linux operating system.
"It's not about the operating system, it's about the educational experience," said OLPC's chief operating officer, Chuck Kane. He said the foundation's Sugar suite of educational software is being modified to run atop Windows.
The project aims to persuade developing countries to buy millions of XO laptops and distribute them free to poor children.
About 600,000 machines have been purchased so far, for distribution in countries such as Nigeria, Peru, and Mexico.
But Kane said some countries, such as Egypt, want machines that run Windows, the most common personal computer operating system in the developed world.
"They said we would be in a much better position with a Windows-capable machine," he said.
Meanwhile, Microsoft was working on a version of its Windows XP operating system that would work on the relatively low-powered XO computer.
"Lo and behold, they finalized [it] and have a very crisp-running machine with XP on it," Kane said.
A statement from Microsoft said the Windows XP version of the XO will be capable of using hundreds of thousands of Windows-compatible programs and hardware accessories.
OLPC will start distributing Windows-based laptops next month. They will cost about $10 more than the original Linux-based XO machines; Microsoft is charging just $3 for the Windows software.
At first, XO users will have to insert a memory card to run Windows. Kane said the foundation and Microsoft are working on an XO that will have both operating systems built in. The user will be able to choose either one at start-up.
Mike Cherry, lead analyst for Windows at Directions on Microsoft, an independent software-research firm in Kirkland, Wash., said Microsoft doesn't want cheap Linux-based computers to threaten the dominance of Windows.
"Let's say they put Linux on there, and people say, 'Hey this works pretty good,' and they start looking at it for other applications as well," he said. Getting Windows onto the XO laptop is one way to prevent this.
"I think it's along the lines of not allowing anybody else to get a toehold," Cherry said.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.