He posits that Microsoft is facing serious competition from Linux on netbooks and other low-end computers, such that if it wishes to protect its application market (mostly Office), it had better give away the OS. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that he really understands what “open source” means, instead using it as a synonym for “free of charge.” You can download most open source software free of charge, but as the name implies, it’s about more than price. In fact, it’s really about availability of source code. It just happens that if the source code is freely available, it’s really hard to charge much for a compiled binary; as a secondary effect, the application is usually free.
Nevertheless, let’s restate the first sentence of this post as “Will Microsoft be compelled to give away Windows for free?” And the answer is that it already does. Or close to free: Large computer retailers like Dell certainly aren’t paying what you would pay for Windows when buying it in a store. In fact, according to Babcock’s article, they’re paying $34.00 a copy. And here’s a tip if you work for a large company — when the Microsoft rep comes around trying to get you to upgrade to Vista, or Windows 7 when that time comes, tell him that you’re conducting an internal study examining the feasibility of switching to Linux. Your price will come down dramatically too! Linux has mostly damaged Microsoft by serving as a handy negotiating hammer for organizations whom one suspects weren’t even seriously considering switching in the first place. People don’t have to actually adopt Linux for it to eat into Microsoft’s profits.
That it has become such a credible threat is a benchmark of how far it has evolved over the past few years. However, that may not amount to much in the marketplace as long as Microsoft is prepared to cut any deal to keep organizations from switching teams.
And speaking of those potentially Microsoft-threatening netbooks, how is the father of all netbooks, the OLPC XO, faring? I suppose the answer is in how you look at it.
From a hardware perspective, there are problems, especially if one examines the response to OLPC’s two G1G1 (give one, get one) campaigns. G1G1 was a program where if you paid for two XOs, one would be sent to you, and one to a needy child somewhere in the developing world.
In 2007, G1G1 netted $37 million. In 2008, it netted $2.5 million, necessitating the firing of 50% of the OLPC staff. What happened? OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte blames it on the economy, but I don’t think the economy alone is sufficient cause for such a dramatic difference. Another approach to the question might be: Why was 2007 so successful? In part it may have been the birth of the netbook, the idea of a wee, inexpensive laptop which would be everything you needed for simple tasks like web surfing and email, coupled with the marketing of the XO as if it were a wee, general purpose laptop. But its success quickly turned on OLPC, as many people, upon receiving their XOs, were dismayed to discover that the devices sported a radically new operating environment, a graphical one designed from the ground up exclusively for use in the classroom, and following the pedagogical philosophy of constructionism. It was called Sugar. By the time of the 2008 G1G1 the cat was out of the bag regarding the XO.
And the final reason the 2008 G1G1 may have been such a dismal failure was the simple fact that Nicholas Negroponte is a colossal buzzkill who, by getting into bed with Microsoft, pissed off hoards of open source fans who were cheering for the project, as well as working for it. The chief software architect, Walter Bender, resigned over the matter. Personally, when the 2008 G1G1 was on I considered hyping it a bit, here and there and to friends or wherever, but it just didn’t feel worth the effort. There was a little voice in the back of my mind saying “Just die already.” It’s hard to see how the OLPC can continue with such a profound deficit of vision at the top, now that many like Bender have left.
If you were to ask how the software is doing, however, the answer would be somewhat different. When Bender left OLPC, he set up Sugar Labs to continue the OS’s development. Sugar is released under an open source license, the GPL, so there’s absolutely nothing stopping him from continuing on his own. Indeed, he has something of an advantage over OLPC in that, while no one is going to give you hardware for free, people will give of their time and talents for something they are passionate about. Sugar is alive and well and carrying on, with plans for the future. These include Sugar on a Stick, basically a bootable USB stick you can use to boot into the Sugar environment on most any old computer. Sweet.