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 had the skills, contacts, energy, and chutzpah to go for it. He’s a wealthy man, from a powerful family. He’s 63 now. He’s already achieved fame as the founder of the MIT Media Lab. But instead of sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying life, he decided to stand up and enjoy life in a different way—by working his butt off for a world-changing dream.

This was a staggering idea that deserves kudos just for being conceived, let alone advanced to the point it has now reached. Whether or not OLPC is in existence five years from now (and I bet it will be in one form or another—more on this in a bit), this changed the game. Negroponte’s concept has clearly accelerated the pace of development of low-cost laptops for children in the developing world. Intel wouldn’t have thought of this on its own—at least not so soon. It probably would have gotten there eventually, and assuredly others would have someday tried to tap this market. But I am sure it would not have happened so fast, and whenever a critical mass of computing power is truly in the hands of children in the developing world, we will all owe a debt to OLPC, no matter whose computers they are using. Negroponte himself recognizes this. As he told the Journal, “if the world were to have 30 million [laptops] in the hands of children at the end of next year, that to me would be a great success,” even if they were made by competitors.

No doubt this is obvious to many people. But I think there is a lot more to the OLPC story that isn’t quite as obvious—but when taken as a whole indicates that the reports of OLPC’s death are likely greatly exaggerated. Consider:

Just as Negroponte no doubt failed to see how competitors like Intel would respond to his “threat,” it’s easy to forget that OLPC will also respond to the threat to it. Indeed, the organization has already produced an innovative program to galvanize sales. This is its “Give One. Get One.” program that debuted earlier this month. This is a limited offering (now running through the year) through which OLPC is selling two laptops to people in the U.S. and Canada for $399. Buyers get to keep one, and one goes to children in a developing nation.

OLPC is also striking new deals, including one mentioned in the Journal piece, to build its laptop around Intel chips (the original model uses AMD chips). I’m guessing this might be a precursor to some sort of truce with Intel, which already has a seat on the OLPC board. There is also the issue of software. OLPC is developing and/or adapting a collection of innovative open-source applications to run on its hardware. Even if its laptop fails to make its mark, its software might. And, of course, there’s the power of Negroponte. Given his incredible ties to world leaders from heads of state to Bono, it might be far wiser for Intel and others to work a deal with him than to try and “stomp” him. All of which augurs for some sort of seat at the table for OLPC.

As the Journal piece mentions, OLPC has enough money in the bank—some $8.7 million as of September, with more coming in—to last for several years. So I’m betting that there will be many other imaginative compromises and collaborations to come—and that OLPC will be front and center for a long time.

Here’s an excerpt from another article I read this weekend:

“Innovation is inefficient. More often than not, it is undisciplined, contrarian, and iconoclastic; and it nourishes itself with confusion and contradiction. In short, being innovative flies in the face of what almost all parents want for their children, most CEOs want for their companies, and heads of states want for their countries. And innovative people are a pain in the ass.”

That article was written in February 2003 by Nicholas Negroponte, for me when I was editor of MIT’s Technology Review. Maybe it was a harbinger of his own innovative ambitions. And maybe, just maybe, it holds some ideas for how we should view the story of Negroponte and OLPC. This story is messy, to be sure. But I’m betting it isn’t over.

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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