A $100 Mac?

MacRumors has picked up on the story that Steve Jobs offered to donate Mac OS X to the $100 laptop project. Of course, the $100 laptop folks turned him down flat.

Why? Isn’t Mac OS X a much better choice than some cheapo open-source environment? Isn’t it easier to use, more polished, and … well, prettier? Sure it is. And while you’re at it, an iBook is a nicer computer than the hand-cranked jalopy they’re creating for all those third-world countries. But it’s not better at what these computers are designed to do. These computers need to operate in remote conditions, away from “tech support,” and even away from electricity and shade.

They need an operating system that has its own free support network, that won’t be “upgraded” to make their computers obsolete, that can be easily modified to fit a nation’s needs.

What many people don’t understand is that these computers are replacing a much more expensive technology: books. They’re replacing some other technologies along the way, too — calculators, even pen-and-paper. It’s not a matter of giving people luxury items when what they really need is food and water, it’s a matter of creating a cheaper way to get information to a large number of people.

Countries like Brazil are chomping at the bit to get these computers. In fact, they’re prepared to pay for them themselves. By equipping the computers with an open-source OS, educators can easily modify them to suit their own needs. Eventually, the hope is that they’ll also be filled with open-source textbooks. Of this, I’m a bit more skeptical. I’m a little concerned that governments will be suckered into paying for copyrighted texts to go on the computer. Just as folks like Jobs have offered “gifts” like Mac OS X, textbook publishers will offer discounted electronic versions of their textbooks. It will be a tempting offer — a million books to go on your million computers for “only” a dollar apiece. But it’s an offer that these nations should refuse, for the same reason they should refuse Mac OS X. Publishers make their money when people “upgrade” their texts every three or four years. A dollar a book seems cheap, but if the publishers retain copyright, it’s a toll the third world will have to pay over and over again.

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