Red Hat and the $100 laptop

Steve Hamm

When Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab proposed a $100 laptop for school kids in poor nations a year ago, he professed interest in a handful of operating systems, including Windows and the Mac OS in addition to Linux. Well, Windows and the Mac seem to have fallen by the wayside. That means two things. First, since Negroponte is now competing with Microsoft rather than collaborating with the software giant, he faces a stiff headwind in his effort to create a mass academic computing phenomenon in developing nations. Second, if, in spite of the challenges, Negroponte can get this program off the ground, it's the best chance yet for Linux to gain momentum as a desktop operating system.

Red Hat, the leading Linux distributor, is throwing its bantamweight body behind the effort. On Jan. 31, it announced its founding corporate membership in Negroponte's One Laptop per Child initiative. Red Hat is in charge of coming up with a special version of Linux designed to make the most of the capablities of this unusual machine.

Clearly, Red Hat has a commercial interest in this gambit working out. While it has had tremendous success in selling Linux for use in server computers, not much is happening on the desktop. It's two things. First, Linux-based PCs aren't as easy to buy and use as Windows-based PCs. Second, Microsoft's Office has a hammerlock on the world's PCs. Without Office running on Linux, it's hard to migrate users over, and, of course, it's highly unlikely that Microsoft will ever make a version of office for Linux.

Even in poor countries, Linux hasn't made a lot of headway against Windows and Office. That's because many people simply steal Microsoft's programs. That's a pain for Microsoft, because it loses out on sales. But, on the other hand, it would probably prefer to have people use stolen versions of its software than use Linux.

The $100 laptop could start pebbles rolling down hill. Negroponte is said to be close to lining up $700 million from seven countries that are interested in buying 7 million laptops, according to the NY Times. These include some major countries, including China, India, Brazil, and Argentina--in addition to smallfry Thailand, Egypt, and Nigeria. The Times quotes Negroponte as saying that Quanta Computer of Taiwan, the leading laptop maker in the world, is willing to manufacture the machines, which are expected to debute late this year or early next year.

Red Hat plans a unique variant of Linux based on its Fedora free version of the operating system. So far, Red Hat volunteers are working on the project internally, but, within the next couple of months, the company plans on turning it into a public project. "This fits in with our historical values," says Mike Evans, Red Hat's vice president of corporate development. "We want to get more technology in the hands of more people at affordable prices, and help improve prospects for people in poor countries. It's one of the things that motivates people to work at Red Hat--changing the world." I have met a number of Red Hat programmers and can confirm that this is true.

Getting Linux to run well on the $100 laptop will require some nifty modifications. The machine doesn't have a hard drive, needs to run on very little power (In fact, it can be powered by a hand crank), has a crude display, and is to be rigged up with mesh networking. Up to now, many of the open source development projects have focused on matching the functionality of commercial programs. So this is a chance for the community to shine and show it can be as innovative as any commercial software outfit.

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