OLPC founder finally faces a 'grim reality'

For years Nicholas Negroponte, the idea-man behind the One Laptop Per Child initiative, told us that it would be "immoral" to use commercial software on his laptops for the children of the third-world. It seems that reality has set in for Dr. Negroponte.

OLPC to run Windows? Say it ain’t so! was the headline and so far reader reaction is mixed.  Adrian Kingsley-Hughes reports $175 OLPC deals blow to open source, guarantees Microsoft’s continued dominance.  From the beginning, the One Laptop per Child foundation, the brainchild of MIT's Nicholas Negroponte, has maintained that their new laptop design would incorporate GNU/Linux and only open-source applications.  To do otherwise would be "immoral" according to Negroponte. 

The goal of OLPC is to provide school children of the third-world with network-connected laptop computers at that elusive $100 price-point.  (For some reason, that is the figure that people have been clinging to for years -- never mind that $100 might as well be a billion to many living in underdeveloped world.  At least, by asking governments to absorb the $100 per laptop, the cost is not a burden to individual families.) 

The challenge of distribution would be handled by contracting with governments who would each buy large quantities (tens of millions) of these laptops and they would absorb the costs of distributing these devices to school children.  By cutting out distribution costs and eliminating profits, and by selling these laptops in large enough volumes, Dr. Negroponte looks to eventually bring the price down to $100 per laptop.  To do this, he hopes to sell 100,000,000 of these laptops per year.  This number represents a sizable fraction of the number of PCs sold worldwide each year.  If he can accomplish this, it will be a remarkable feet indeed. 

Microsoft has long been interested in the potential of emerging markets, in no small part because many of these markets are also havens for software pirates who sell bootlegged Microsoft products at pennies on the dollar.  Add to this the fact that 100,000,000 Linux machines could soon be in the hands of so many school children who have no access to a Microsoft retailer or OEM and Microsoft is understandably concerned.  Hence, their response to being left out of the OLPC project: Microsoft's Linux defense: $3 Windows-Office bundle in emerging markets

In this David and Goliath tale, the OLPC Foundation suddenly finds itself pitted against the most popular (and yet the most hated) software vendor in the world.  From an energy-efficiency standpoint, the OLPC laptop is technically superior:

  • Processor: AMD Geode GX 533@1.1W Processor, 32-bit, 32KB of level 1 cache, 16KB for instructions, and 16KB for data.
  • Memory: 128 MB RAM
  • Graphics: Controller is integrated with the Geode CPU
  • Hard Drive: 512 MB Single Level Cell (SLC) Non-Volatile (NAND) Computer Memory flash memory
  • Display: Liquid-crystal display: 7.5" Dual-mode TFT display, 1200 (H) x 900 (V) resolution (200 dpi)
  • Connectivity: Wireless: Marvell Libertas 88W8388+88W8015, 802.11b/g compatible; dual adjustable, rotating coaxial antennas
  • Ports: 3 Type-A USB-2.0 connectors; 1 SecureDigital card slot
  • Operating System: Linux using LinuxBIOS
  • Weight: Less than 3.3 Lbs (target only—subject to change)

But it is largely unproven technology.  It is also far less capable than the refurbished PCs Microsoft is offering as an alternative to OLPC for around $50 a piece.  (Never mind that third-world children often have no access reliable power -- the OLPC can be recharged with foot power if need be!)  It seems to me that Dr. Negroponte finds himself between a rock and a hard place and had little choice but to offer Microsoft an opportunity to be a participant in OLPC.  (If you can't beat them, join them!) 

On the other hand, like it or not, Microsoft's market dominance could mean lots of opportunities for OLPC to succeed in lowering its price-point in the future by drumming up business in American schools who find the current price-point attractive (even at $175) but who are gun-shy about Linux. 

(Let's face it, Linux may be just as easy to use as Windows but if few teachers, administrators, or politicians are familiar with it, and if under-funded schools do not have knowledgeable IT staff, it is still a hard sell.  If Windows is available as an alternative, the OLPC laptop becomes much more attractive.)

I don't really hold out much hope for OLPC.  While it is a great concept (especially for the third-world -- not so much for American school children, most of whom have access to far more robust computers at home, at school, and at nearly every public library) this "state-of-the-art" laptop must not only be robust, it has to look robust.  The pre-production versions look like cheap plastic toys.  I cannot imagine that this helps sell them. 

While Dr. Negroponte has always pushed the networking aspects of his concept, I think it is overly optimistic to believe that there will be a sufficient build-out of new network infrastructure any time soon for networking to be the key feature of these devices. 

What is intriguing is reports I have read that suggest that these laptops will be preloaded with large volumes of textbooks and literature.  (See Should Education IT care about OLPC?)  This is a great way to provide each school child in the third world with something of far greater value than a lame computer -- a virtual library in a format far more suitable for harsh environments than ink printed on paper.  I applaud this part of the project.  As long as these devices are robust enough to survive the harsh environments they are to be found in, if they are used for nothing other than ebook readers, they will have been worth the expense. 

The downside?  These reading materials will be approved by the third-world government who's footing the bill.  Whether this is good or bad depends a great deal upon how forthright that government is with its citizens, and how trustful its citizens are of their government.  In the USA for instance, few school districts would tolerate being told what reading material will be present on their version of the OLPC laptop.

In the end, whether OLPC has any impact whatsoever on the open-source movement remains to be seen.  Many will speculate that Microsoft's having now been included will hurt OLPC.  While I have no bias against open-source, from a marketing standpoint having Microsoft involved can only help the cause of OLPC -- to help bring educational materials to the children of the third-world.

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