The Little Laptop That Could…One Way or Another

11/26/07Follow @bbuderi

Opening my weekend Wall Street Journal yesterday, I found the following headline: “A Little Laptop With Big Ambitions: How a Computer for the Poor Got Stomped by Tech Giants.”

The article vividly detailed the woes of the One Laptop Per Child effort, and how far OLPC is from achieving founder Nicholas Negroponte’s 2005 vision of putting $100 laptops in the hands of up to 150 million children in developing nations by the end of 2008—and how unlikely it is to ever reach that goal.

In one sense, the program’s a mess. So far, only 2,000 kids have received an OLPC computer through pilot programs, according to the Journal. The current price tag is $188. Potential buyers are balking over the possibility of software bugs, and the lack of training and support. Meanwhile, OLPC is facing competition from the likes of Microsoft and Intel. The latter is already selling its ClassMate computer for $230-$300 and is using its powerful sales force to outpace OLPC in places like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Libya. And these are just some of the woes chronicled. Not only is the original goal likely “unattainable,” the Journal concludes, the problems raise the possibility that OLPC “will end up as a niche player.”

No doubt the piece accurately portrays the formidable challenges OLPC faces, and it’s a good testament to the powers of entrenched market leaders and how they respond to a threat like OLPC. And even though we love to celebrate path-breaking ideas, we sometimes fail to recognize that conventional, more incremental technological improvements can often produce the same end results more rapidly and efficiently than a disruptive concept. To a degree, at least, all these things appear to be happening here.

Still, I think the Journal article gives short shrift to a critical issue—how in “failure” something like OLPC is really likely to be an incredible success, no matter what the final numbers are. The Journal noted how the project had galvanized competition, chiefly by Intel, but also from computer makers in India, Israel, and Taiwan, who are all out to produce cheap PCs to tap emerging markets. It even gave him a back-handed complement, noting how his “ambitious plan has been derailed, in part, by the power of his idea.”

But let’s step back and ask ourselves what “derailed” means. Negroponte had a vision, a bold vision, and he … Next Page »

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • HomeUser

    The choice of the hardware is far from essential for the project. It is nice for competition not playing in the hands of monopolists, but avoiding monopolies is not the aim of the project.

    Using open source software is still not essential, but far more important. It offers more education opportunity’s? It allows that the now kids, a few years later improve themselves what will become their project and can make the project self sustaining.

    Perhaps, more than a specific computer, a standard could be produced for a cheap, good, strong, educational computer.

    The project should not be against any company. Why shouldn’t Microsoft not be asked to contribute open source to the project? They may have their reasons, but the project should be open.

    I suppose nobody can avoid that a software vendor offering not open (and probably not allways free) software for the platform. Even a complete set with OS, applications and drivers. So if it can’t be avoided, why not cooperate and even organize it? And let the user make the choice. The included free soft or…

  • Frank Daley

    Aside from Google, OLPC is perhaps the greatest single threat to Microsoft’s lock over end user computing because it has been designed from the ground up to support Linux and an innovative open source stack running on top of Linux. If OLPC delivers products into the hands of tens of millions of students, it will re-align the future of end user computing for many decades.

    Hence, for Microsoft, the threat is so immediate and so real, it is not the least bit surprising that it is making an enormous effort to have the project still-born. It will be particularly successful at this in countries that have a poor record of financial transparency and that are all too ready to take all sorts of incentives to ignore the OLPC.

    So while deals that involve Intel’s Classmate running Linux might happen (and also the Asus might be currently shipping a Linux-based Eee PC) Microsoft is confident that in future years it will be able to win back those users with its own software stack because the software stack on both the Linux-based Classmate and the Eee PC are pretty ordinary. On the other hand, the OLPC stack is truly innovative and disruptive.

    However winning back OLPC users would require a massive effort by Microsoft, and even then, it would be a mighty tough sell.

    So do not be the least surprised that Microsoft’s venom towards the OLPC has started so strongly, there will be lots lots more to come.

  • http://www.digg.com Youngstar

    Negroponte’s shame is that his ego is so big that it got in the way of his sensibilities and that a great idea was so full of itself that it was blinded to the need to build bridges and partners instead of press releases and statements of optimism.

    The MediaLab will has had its brand and name lowered because of this fiasco and will need to work hard to regain credibility even though it wasn’t directly related to this project.

    There’s a few great lessons that Negroponte has taught me in this entire embarrassment:

    1. Never assume that you’re #1. Ever.

    2. Be flexible as an entrepreneur. It’s not about *YOU*. It’s about the customer and their needs, not your grand ideas for the world.

    3. Someone’s out there eating your lunch already and might just eat you if you keep thinking that you’re a hotshot looking for snappy-snaps.

    4. NEVER talk bad about your enemies in the press! It makes you look like a sore loser!

    Let’s hope when this youngstar tuns 63, these lessons will still be rich and deep in my old man’s brain.

    Youngstar!