OLPC Lays Off Half Its Staff—Refocusing Mission and Talking About the $0 Laptop

1/7/09Follow @bbuderi

The One Laptop Per Child Foundation, the great dream of MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte to bring low-cost, educational computing to children in the world’s developing nations and beyond, announced today a major layoff and refocusing of its mission.

Only 32 staff will remain, about half the current number, according to Negroponte’s post on the OLPC blog. The OLPC founder also laid out a series of new technology initiatives that include development of a second generation of computers, a “no-cost connectivity program,” “a million digital books,” and turning over development of OLPC’s original Suger Operating System to the open source community. “Separately,” Negroponte wrote, “OLPC will be dedicated to bringing the cost of the laptop down to Zero for the Least Developed Countries — the $0 Laptop.”

It’s a sad, but not unexpected, turning point for one of the great humanitarian visions of the last decade. OLPC has struggled with departures of top staff, difficulty in achieving sales, defection of key sponsors, and claims that it was mismanaged, among other challenges. At the same time, it is clear to me that Negroponte’s vision inspired many people around the world—and focused far greater attention on educational initiatives in developing nations than there would ever have been otherwise.

And the story is not over, as Negroponte’s post, which also describes a new focus on deploying computers to the Middle East, Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan, makes clear. We’ll try to find out more in the coming days, but here is Negroponte’s post on the OLPC blog:

Like many other nonprofits that are facing tough economic times, One Laptop per Child must downsize in order to keep costs in line with fewer financial resources. Today we are reducing our team by approximately 50% and there will be salary reductions for the remaining 32 people. While we are saddened by this development, we remain firmly committed to our mission of getting laptops to children in developing countries. We thank team members who are departing for their contributions to this important mission.

This restructuring is also the result of an exciting new direction for OLPC. Our technology initiatives will focus on:

1. Development of Generation 2.0
2. A no-cost connectivity program
3. A million digital books
4. Passing on the development of the Sugar Operating System to the community.

With regard to deployments:

1. Latin America will be spun off into a separate support unit
2. Sub-Saharan Africa will become a major learning hub
3. The Middle East, Afghanistan and Northwestern Pakistan will become
a major focus

Separately, OLPC will be dedicated to bringing the cost of the laptop down to Zero for the Least Developed Countries — the $0 Laptop.

Restructuring brings with it pain for some of our friends and colleagues who are being let go. These are people who have dedicated themselves to the advancement of a noble cause, and to say that we are exceeding grateful for the time, the ideas, the energy and the commitment they have given OLPC does not — cannot — adequately express our admiration or our gratitude. The fact that there are 500,000 children around the world who have laptops is testament to their extraordinary work and is already a key part of OLPC’s legacy.

The future brings with it some uncertainty, some difficulty, but also the excitement that comes with the rededication to a cause, and a new path that will allow us to realize the moral purpose of OLPC. I hope that each one of you will remain supportive of OLPC, and its mission of opening up a universe of knowledge to the world’s poorest children living in the most remote parts of the Earth.

— Nicholas Negroponte

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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  • Henry Wertz

    Yes, it was mismanaged. The KEY defector was Negroponte himself IMHO. He pushed this as a great educational tool, but also as a great win for open specifications and open source technologies.. then when things didn’t initially quite work out he basically said “No I never said that, we’re shipping these with Windows XP” (despite having to increase the specs and cost greatly to make Windows even run on it). Then he was shocked — SHOCKED! — when many people working on OLPC as an open source platform didn’t want to keep working on it as an underpowered Windows box. There were other management problems, but alienating your key staff is not great management.

    Negroponte DOES get full props I think for essentially founding the netbook market though.

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