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The Real Cost of $3 Windows
LEAVE it to Bill Gates. There’s a reason he’s the richest man in the world.
On a visit to China last April, he announced a program that would sell a $3 bundle of Windows XP and MS Office to governments in poor countries that subsidize the purchase of computers by students.
“All human beings deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential,” Gates said in announcing Microsoft’s latest program to bridge the digital divide.
It was a PR coup and also a shrewd business move.
Now $3 is a great price for MS Office 2007, even though it’s the home and student edition that doesn’t have PowerPoint. But Windows XP Starter Edition is a crippled version of a five-year-old operating system, with networking disabled and multitasking severely limited.
So the software isn’t great, but it’s good enough to get the job done.
Unfortunately, “work” isn’t just personal productivity, it’s technology lock-in. It’s about creating a new generation of computer users hooked on Windows and programs that run under the proprietary operating system.
Microsoft isn’t shy about this goal of “reaching the next billion” PC users and tying them to its technology.
“Many of these people we believe will be consumers in the future,” said Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of Microsoft’s emerging market development group.
A closer look at the $3 deal also exposes software pricing as an artificial and arbitrary affair. Why sell hundreds of dollars worth of software for just $3. Why not $2? Or $5?
Even the Starter Edition is an arbitrary, marketing-driven creation that artificially limits the functionality of the software. It goes back to the day when some marketing genius at Intel decided to sell a version of the 486 processor with the math coprocessor disabled, simply so it could sell the same chip at a lower price, without having customers willing to do so. pay more to complain. At the same time, a software so that you can sell it at low cost makes the same sense.
Significantly, Microsoft’s $3 offer comes at a time when the open-source Linux operating system is growing in popularity as a free alternative to Windows on desktops and laptops. By directing its program to developing countries, Microsoft seems determined to abandon Linux in markets where the free alternative is more likely to thrive at the expense of Windows.
But in the same week that Gates announced the $3 grant, a major software milestone passed without encouragement.
There was no Times Square countdown. There is no demonstration of an aging tech guru. There is no big advertising campaign or clever TV commercials. With a refreshing lack of marketing hype, the latest version of Ubuntu, one of the most popular Linux distributions, was released to the general public on April 19.
That day, the Ubuntu home page was replaced with a bare page under a title that read “Ubuntu 7.04 – Well done”.
There were only two sentences under the title: “Thanks to everyone who helped make Ubuntu 7.04 a reality. Thousands of you helped code, test, translate, and promote Ubuntu, and everyone can celebrate today’s release.”
Below the note were links to servers in 30 odd countries where the 700MB file (an ISO disk image) could be downloaded.
Lack of hype wasn’t the only thing that set Ubuntu apart.
Against industry trends, Ubuntu developers delivered the latest version of the operating system on time, as promised. In stark contrast, Microsoft missed numerous release targets on its five-year road to Windows Vista, and even Apple has had to push back the June release of Leopard, the new version of the Mac OS X operating system.
The timely delivery of Ubuntu 7.04 is another sign that the open source approach to software development is working. Unlike the traditional approach where one company hires all the programmers and controls product development, open source projects are distributed to volunteer programmers around the world, working cooperatively over the Internet.
And Ubuntu 7.04, codenamed Feisty Fawn, is no crippled software. It is a modern, sophisticated and fully functional operating system that is more secure and possibly more efficient than Windows Vista. It also comes with a lot of great software, including an office suite that does what MS Office does, all for free.
So why would a developing country want to pay $3 per computer when they can get a much better deal for free? The real cost of Microsoft’s $3 offer to developing countries is much higher than its price tag suggests. The real cost is being absorbed into a proprietary world and the loss of choice that would come with open source software.
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