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Why No Microsoft Software for $100 Laptop?

During this morning's Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR's Scott Simon reflected on the progress of the One Laptop Per Child XO project , pointing to the salient features of a laptop whose target price is $100, listing the light weight, low power consumption, camera, speakers, microphone, water-resistance, and bright light operation. In particular he pointed out the presence of the "Get Source" key, which exposes the source of the currently running program. This is why the XO cannot run Microsoft software. OLPC hopes that eventually Microsoft software can run on the XO, but open sourcing is critical to the whole usefulness of the laptop. Yet Microsoft's proprietary code has made Bill Gates a philanthrope whose Gates Foundation insists that scientists who receive its grants share their findings, believing that open sourcing of information spurs and sharpens medical research. The company from which its assets are derived prefers to do business as usual.

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The OLPC's dedicated key for showing source code never actually worked (at least not in any of the software builds that run on the early prototype I have). It's been moved to a key combination (FN-spacebar). And the laptop ships only with binaries -- no source -- due to limited local storage on its flash memory. Show Source was a good idea, but its time has not yet come. Perhaps eventually it will be made to work via a wireless link to a local school server, back over the Internet to laptop.org's source code archives, or through a distributed-cache file system shared among many laptops. The HyperNeWS GUI of many years ago included a command that would "flip over" any of the controls or buttons or panels on the screen, giving the user access to its internal settings and/or code. They could be modified on the fly and flipped back over to continue in context. OLPC hasn't designed any such grand ambitions into their software. It's been a scramble merely getting the basic functions working before mass production. Clearly, the community has the opportunity to make the software 10x or 100x better before the hardware runs out of useful life. It'll get much faster, get better battery life, get better graphics, more intuitive networking and GUI, and much better teaching tools -- all "a simple matter of software". The next step for enterprising child programmers will be to find a compiler; the laptop doesn't come with one. Kids will theoretically be able to modify the Python source that some of the system is written in. It reminds me of my own teenage years, in which I learned a lot about programming using an interactive, interpreted, and thus readily approachable language -- APL. These kids are going to have some fun...