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.
From our perspective, Windows on the XO is a nice addition to the portfolio of products and services Microsoft has created to help transform education, one of the key themes of Unlimited Potential. It builds on the work we have been doing with partners like Intel and with programs like Partners in Learning, which has now reached over 100 million students worldwide.
And as you can see from this video featuring UPG's own Bohdan Raciborski, the Windows port to the XO is a snappy release that doesn't cut features or functionality in order to work in the constrained memory and storage environment of the XO.
It is the same basic Windows XP implementation that runs on the Intel Class Mate, ASUS eeePC, and other products in this emerging class of ultra low cost laptop PCs. As I have posted earlier, we had to write multiple custom drivers and a BIOS to get Windows to boot from an SD card in order to do the Windows port to the XO. This is the initial implementation customers will be able purchase when the product RTMs and will be a "Windows only" XO that Nicholas Negroponte himself has described as running "really fast." Customers can also choose to buy the existing Linux/Sugar XO. Longer term, the OLPC plans to write a new BIOS and increase the amount of flash storage on the XO to support a "Dual Boot" option that would enable children to use either Linux or Windows on the same machine. This is fine with us as long there continues to be an excellent Windows experience on the XO.
So you may ask, why is Microsoft doing this?
The answer is simple: people are asking for it, it transforms education and it leads to the creation of jobs and opportunity.
You can classify demand for Windows on the XO into three groups. The first group consists of people who have fallen in love with that cute little green laptop with its excellent industrial design but are committed to Windows. I wrote last fall about the guys from the Romanian Ministry of Education who like Windows (their teams regularly place in the Imagine Cup) and thought it would be cool to evaluate Windows on the XO. Another example is the NGO Save the Children, who are interested in sponsoring projects with the XO but as an IT organization have a
Windows-only Windows-standard policy. Any extra money they spend in IT supporting multiple operating systems or technology camps is money diverted from their core mission around service, which for them is not a good thing.
The second group involves governments who are considering deployment of the XO en masse but also want the low deployment risk and broad support that the Windows ecosystem can provide them. Let's face it, there are hundreds of millions of Windows machines out there in the world today, which means there are thousands and thousands of people who know how to deploy, support, fix, and upgrade them. Despite the "let the kids fix their own computers" mindset that exists in some parts of the open source community, what we call at Microsoft the "IT Pro" is exactly the type of person that is needed for these large scale education deployments. As we all know, computers break, and asking children and teachers to fix them is not always the best solution. When I presented Unlimited Potential in Guatemala to a gathering of Ministry of Education types from across the region, the slide that generated the most interest was the one that described Microsoft's IT infrastructure optimization framework for large scale education deployments. Based on that customer feedback, we've decided to invest even more into a formalized national PC deployment methodology that we are starting to roll out right now. And believe it or not, it's easier to find Windows system administrators in places like India and Africa than it is to find Linux system administrators, and the Windows IT Pros cost less. We'll be releasing a study on this next month, so stay tuned.
The third group involves people -- usually policy makers -- in governments who see a direct link between technology investments in education and the need to expand the skills capacity of their workforce on a national scale. In other words, they want to implement policies that can positively impact education and set the stage for better employment opportunities for their citizens. They see Windows as a key ingredient for making this happen because it is the software environment used by so many businesses around the world.
Microsoft has created the Unlimited Potential initiative around the themes of transforming education, fostering local innovation, and enabling jobs and opportunity. Today's announcement gives us the opportunity to reinforce how these three themes can support each other given the right scenario and the right set of tools. If we can provide children with a great learning experience, and do so in a manner that involves a massive scale with the right level of (local) support, it has the potential for being transformational across multiple fronts. It's pretty exciting.