The Little Laptop That Could…One Way or Another

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 »

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

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