In a development that ultimately could boost sales of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) foundation’s low-cost XO computer to governments worldwide, Microsoft Corp. on Dec. 6 said it would begin testing a version of its Windows XP operating system on the machine in January.

It has taken nearly a year of engineering to get Microsoft’s bulky operating system to run on the low-cost XO laptop, Microsoft said. The XO uses flash memory instead of a hard drive and offers less storage space than most mainstream PCs, in an effort to keep the cost below $200.

In May, The Associated Press reported Microsoft’s concern that the memory issue and other technical hurdles would stymie efforts to port Windows to the XO, which was originally designed to run a free Linux-based operating system.

Microsoft since has released Windows XP for other flash-based, low-cost computers, such as Intel Corp.’s Classmate PC, which has twice as much storage space. For the XO, Microsoft said it has reworked the operating system so it can start up and run from an extra memory card that plugs into the laptop’s circuitry.

James Utzschneider, a general manager in Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential group, said Windows XP for the XO won’t be ready for widespread use until at least the second half of 2008. And, he said, technical hurdles were only part of the reason.

“It’s been a fast-moving target for us to design towards,” he said. “We only had a handful of machines in the hands of our engineers in the last year. That, and [the] fact they were still making hardware changes as recently as August, … slowed us down.”

OLPC, founded by former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Nicholas Negroponte, aims to distribute its low-cost XO computers to children in developing nations in an effort to revolutionize education. But sales of the device to foreign governments have proven more difficult than expected, in part because of competition from the Classmate PC, which offers users a choice of Linux or Windows systems.

Officials in Libya, for example, who had planned to buy up to 1.2 million of the XO laptops, became concerned that the machines lacked Windows, and that service, teacher training, and future upgrades might become a problem.

“The Intel machine is a lot better than the OLPC,” Mohamed Bani, who chairs Libya’s technical advisory committee but doesn’t have the final say on buying laptops, told the Wall Street Journal for a story last month. “I don’t want my country to be a junkyard for these machines.”

Libya reportedly has decided to buy at least 150,000 Intel Classmates, and the future of the OLPC program there is now uncertain.

It was concerns such as this that prompted Negroponte’s nonprofit group to reverse course and work with Microsoft to offer a version of the XO that would run Windows software. Now, it remains to be seen whether this development will spur sales of the XO to more nations worldwide.

Links:

One Laptop Per Child

Classmate PC

Microsoft Unlimited Potential