Microsoft's announcement last week that it will sell a $3 software bundle to students in developing countries is a positive move that won’t hurt the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) effort, according to a member of the non-profit group’s board.

"For the good of the world, it’s a positive thing," said Michael Evans, vice president of corporate and business development at Linux provider Red Hat and a director of OLPC, which is building the '$100 laptop’. (See PC Advisor’s feature on OLPC's $100 laptop.)

Through Microsoft's Unlimited Potential programme, qualifying governments that are working to supply PCs to students in order to promote technology skills will be able to buy a package of software known as the Student Innovation Suite. The suite includes Windows XP Starter Edition, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Math 3.0, Learning Essentials 2.0 for Microsoft Office, and Windows Live Mail desktop by the end of this year. PCs are not included. In 2008, Microsoft will expand the program to all countries with economies defined as low- or middle-income by The World Bank.

Experts have noted that the $3 package could in many cases simply replace pirated versions of Windows and other software popular in poorer countries.

Steve Kleynhans, an analyst at Gartner, said he thinks Unlimited Potential mixes altruistic with commercial motivations for Microsoft. "Never underestimate the ability of Microsoft to respond to a threat," he said. At the same time, "if the goal is getting inexpensive computing power to more people around the world, than this helps that goal."

Which is exactly how OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte feels, said Evans. Negroponte "just wants to see lower-cost computers in kids’ hands," he said. "If that means other companies filling this need, he’d still be happy as a clam. Our mission is not to beat Apple, Dell or Microsoft." OLPC is preparing to release the ‘$100 laptop’ to its first customers sometime after September this year.

The $100 laptop is being developed through heavy volunteer effort and the use of free, tweakable open-source technologies. The governments of five countries have ordered 1 million or more of the machines. The $100 price tag remains a target based on higher order volumes; initial shipments of the PCs will be priced at $150 each.

Evans claimed that the OLPC is so focused on delivering its product that its executives don’t have time to worry about competition.

"The OLPC doesn’t employ anyone whose job is to react. There’s no VP of competitive marketing," he said.

Still, Evans did venture to say that he felt Unlimited Potential, along with moves by Microsoft’s traditional ally, Intel, to produce its own low-cost PC, were only partial reactions to the OLPC. Selling Windows XP and other software for $3 is "only a piece of the solution, whereas I believe the OLPC is a complete solution for that target market," he said.

He also said that while the OLPC has confirmed multiple millions of orders, "the jury is still out" on how popular Unlimited Potential will prove. "It might get 10,000 buyers, it might get 50 million, there’s no way to predict," he said.

And during a keynote speech given earlier at the MySQL conference, Evans said that the OLPC is part of a worldwide movement away from proprietary software such as Windows and Office.

"It’s a scary concept to a lot of people to have 100 million to 200 million people potentially growing up using open-source software," he said. "But if you stay on the wrong side of global inclusion, you’ll get overrun by the masses."