What will become of the OLPC Project?

Nicholas Negroponte is an engaging figure. I still recall reading his foreword in the text "Unleashing The Killer App Digital Strategies for Market Dominance"
This particular passage in the foreword caught my attention, "Sometimes, looking straight ahead - even with the most dedicated attention and seasoned experience -- just misses both the big picture and the new ideas, because they often come at you from those outlying areas affectionately called "left field."

Given Negroponte's business savvy, I'm somewhat surprised that he appears to have been naive in the face of hostile competition in the form of the Intel and ASUS sub-level notebook computers.
At first glance it appears that it did not occur to him that these companies would seek to compete against a very small, privately funded non-profit project.

Let me preface my critique with the following: I am a staunch advocate of the OLPC. I believe that Negroponte provided the XO as means of leveling the playing field for developing nations. It was obvious that he did not believe that anyone really cared about the providing computing power for needy countries and the millions of children in those areas. Methinks that he could have garnered even more support by providing a comparable effort stateside, as we have children at risk in urban centers across this country. More on this later.

As stated earlier, there were some fatal flaws in the OLPC strategy, was under estimation of greed and perhaps an understanding of how difficult it is to truly achieve economies of scale in manufacturing a product. Let us discuss greed for a moment. Intel was very bitter that Negroponte opted to use AMD CPU. Perhaps even larger was it obvious omission of that Redmond OS. We know the WinTel model is predominant in the industry, but has little uptake in the sub-$400 notebook/laptop market.

It would appear that Intel secretly or maybe not so-secretly wanted to crush the OLPC campaign because they dared not to use their hardware or even consult their engineering team prior to building out the XO prototypes. Negroponte thought wrongly that Intel would not use its experienced manufacturing might to undercut the OLPC pricing structure. To make matters worse, I would also venture to guess that Intel, ASUS, and OLPC are sharing suppliers because the laptop computing space is a highly marginalized business. Not exactly dog food, but you get the idea.

Another noteworthy issue that prevented OLPC from achieving the appropriate economies of scale, was the inability to get commitment from several key countries. Some of these countries were struggling with internal political strife and could ill-afford to focus on matters of this magnitude. In short, most of the people that Negroponte befriended did not have the stripes to dictate change in those countries. Last year four countries agreed to buy 4 million OLPC machines (Nigeria, Thailand, Brazil, and Argentina).

Thailand's former Prime Minister and OLPC advocate was ousted by political coup, which essentially killed any chance for adoption. Nigeria has completed the deal and rolled out the program. Of course Nigeria, has its own problems, but it will be interesting to see how OLPC matures in that region. Both Brazil and Argentina have proceeded much slower than Negroponte expected.

Whenever there is blood in the water, sharks soon appear. The slowed adoption of OLPC opened the door to Intel Classmate PC, and ASUS eeepc. Arguably, if countries adopt the ASUS eeepc, there would likely be more widespread adoption of Linux. However, I would suspect that this growth would be at the expense of OLPC. Furthermore, at the moment eeepc appears to be more capable of running M$ OS than XO.

The Intel Classmate PC was not designed to run FOSS, and was of course positioned to compete against OLPC. I suppose that Intel will be able to leverage its legacy brand in an effort to solicit partnerships in the global education space. Very shrewd indeed.

There will likely be a fair amount of uptake and probably some compromise in order for the OLPC to survive. I am not at all confident that OLPC can survive against the might of Intel. However, I do applaud Negroponte's bold and brash stance. The OLPC campaign probably served as an incubator for ASUS, which will push Linux in front of people who had no knowledge of it previously.

Time will tell.


  • No OLPC in NOLA?
  • OLPC will fork
  • One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)
  • links for 2006-12-04
  • Monthly Archives

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    This page contains a single entry by AG published on December 15, 2007 9:58 PM.

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