Friday, May 19, 2006

New Orleans to Partner with Microsoft

New Orleans is apparently in the midst of final negotiations on a vague but tantalizingly described deal with Microsoft.

From the outset it ought to be said that holding a press conference without your putative partners in order to announce a deal you've not yet signed off on is a bit unusual--and suspicious. There are at least two reasons for rushing the announcement. The most obvious is to give Nagin something to brag about in the last two days of the mayoral campaign. The less obvious reason is to metaphorically line up Microsoft with Earthlink as partners in a rebuilding plan that involves "free" or minimal cost contributions to new infrastructure that are dependent on New Orleans' free, public, wireless network. New Orleans has to be hopeful that it can get the state to repeal the part of the law that prevents it from taking full advantage of such largesse. --Another bill concerning a legislative exemption for wireless networks is currently scheduled to be heard on Monday (the first didn't make it out of committee.)

From the Times Picayune story:
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Thursday announced a "new partnership" with computer giant Microsoft Corp. that he said will make public education, public safety and city finances more efficient by using Windows-based software developed for other cities around the country.
The part that is most likely to be interesting to folks outside of New Orleans is the digital divide and educational aspects of the partnership.
Nagin and his chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, said that part of the aim of the program is to close the 'digital divide' that separates rich and poor in New Orleans. The new technology, the mayor said, would be available to low-income families, who he said would pay $100 or less for a personal computer. They would access the Internet for free on a wireless wi-fi network the city is building.

As for the $100 computers, the mayor said such machines already exist. But Meffert noted that they're not available "off the shelf." Officials did not explain how low-income residents will be able to purchase one.
We've confronted a number of these issues in Lafayette--it's not nearly as easy as it might seem. As far as $100 dollar PC goes it seems that Meffert and Nagin are conflating two projects that aren't compatible. Microsoft's version of a digital divide computer would cost more than $100 dollars while a version of a laptop from an MIT-backed consortium has a target price of about $100 but is committed to a Linux OS. (One story) Gates has been heard muttering darkly about it not being a capable enough computer and software stability. MIT's Negraponte has fired back about proprietary software. There are also the dark horses. One set is network "thin clients" from the likes of Sun (recall the flurry about Sun during the referendum) or Linux-based computers with similar functionality (I've even thought Linux-based cable settop boxes could stand in for network-centric clients). Groups in both India and Brazil have put together low cost machines--the Indian one runs on a chip intended for cellphones. Long story short: A $100 per seat computer suitable for distribution and subsequent use over New Orleans is not yet available; the most likely candidate is MIT's laptop but Microsoft wouldn't be part of that deal.

It'll be interesting to see how this story plays out. Stay tuned.

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