Microsoft may not have beaten French Linux vendor Mandriva in a large deal to supply Nigerian elementary schools with laptop computers and software after all.

Microsoft may not have beaten French Linux vendor Mandriva in a large deal to supply Nigerian elementary schools with laptop computers and software after all.

Mandriva had closed a deal in mid-August to provide a customised Linux operating system and support for 17,000 Intel Classmate PCs intended for Nigerian schools, but found out last week that the company deploying the computers for the government, Technology Support Center (TSC), planned to wipe the computers' disks and install Windows XP instead.

Now, however, a government agency funding 11,000 of the PCs has overruled the supplier. Nigeria's Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) wants to keep Mandriva Linux on the Classmate PCs, said an official who identified himself as the programme manager for USPF's Classmate PCs project.

"We are sticking with that platform," said the official, who would not give his name.

The organisation reserves the right to choose whichever platform is best for Nigerian students, which could also include Microsoft's software in the future, said the official.

Last week, Mandriva heard that TSC planned to pay Mandriva for its customisation work - but then abruptly change the OS on the computers to Windows XP. TSC had placed an order with a local Microsoft supplier for Windows XP and Office productivity software.

The switch raised the question of why TSC would commit public money to buy computers with Mandriva, and then absorb the cost of buying Windows and installing it on the computers.

Which operating system ultimately prevails is important since TSC is the biggest supplier of Intel Classmate PCs in West Africa, and is expected to eventually ship more than 100,000 of the computers.

It also highlights the battle Microsoft is waging in developing countries against Linux, which appeals to governments looking for software with lower licensing costs.

Microsoft claims Nigeria is still demanding Windows. Microsoft's country manager in Nigeria, Chinenye Mba-Uzoukwu, provided a statement to IDG News Service on Thursday that said the company was informed by TSC that there was "a preference for a tested platform," meaning Windows, without elaborating further.

In fact, Intel has tested and certified three operating systems for the Classmate PC: Mandriva Linux, Metasys Linux and Microsoft Windows XP Pro.

Mba-Uzoukwu wrote that Microsoft is still negotiating an agreement that would give TSC US$400,000 (£190,323) for marketing activities around the Classmate PCs when those computers are converted to Windows.

"Microsoft is able to offer a comprehensive education solution - including software, training and support - on the 17,000 Classmate PCs for 200 schools across Nigeria," the statement said.

After public statements from Mandriva officials implied the marketing deal is legally questionable, Microsoft said last week that it complies with international law and the law of the countries in which it operates.

It's not clear how much TSC would pay for each Windows XP licence. Efforts to reach senior managers at TSC, which is a subsidiary of Alteq.ict, an IT consulting business in Nigeria, were unsuccessful.

However, details on Mandriva's deal with TSC have emerged. Mandriva is providing a customised OS for Nigeria for under $10 (£4.7) per licence, including support, according to its local partner.

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