Is OLPC really immune to criticism?

Is OLPC really immune to criticism?

Summary: Reading George Ou's post today, "OLPC is the PC you can't ever criticize", reminded me of a conversation I had with my kid's doctor the other day. It went something like this:Doctor: I heard on the radio this morning about a great little laptop that you can get for $300.

TOPICS: Intel, Laptops, PCs

Reading George Ou's post today, "OLPC is the PC you can't ever criticize", reminded me of a conversation I had with my kid's doctor the other day. It went something like this:

Doctor: I heard on the radio this morning about a great little laptop that you can get for $300. You get one and then they send another one to some developing country. Have you heard about it?

Me: Actually, I have. It's closer to $400, but that's about the idea. It's called the XO from a group called One Laptop Per Child. I'm supposed to be receiving a competitor to the XO this week for a hands-on review.

Doctor: Really? How much does the other one cost?

Me: About $230 right now, but it's not clear whether they will sell them in the States.

Doctor: So they're undercutting OLPC? I bet it's from some big corporation, isn't it?

Me: Well, yes, it's from Intel, but their business model...

Doctor: It figures - Here's this company trying to do the right thing and some corporate giant swings in...

Me: really quite different...

Doctor: ...and crushes them with a cheaper product!

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but you get the idea. This woman is incredibly well-educated, respected in her field, and a top-notch doctor. She also hears about a program like the OLPC and can't help but think what a great and noble idea it is to improve impoverished children's lives by bridging the Digital Divide and networking them right into the land of opportunity. The technical, political, and economic issues associated with OLPC don't even cross her mind; that's the idea.

OLPC declined to send me an XO for review (or as they put it, they receive many requests and have a very limited supply of computers, so need to prioritize requests from journalists). To be fair, I probably wouldn't send me one either after some of the articles that have been posted in this blog. Intel, however, is scheduled to be shipping me 2 Classmate PCs this week. One's running Linux, the other, Windows. We'll see how they fare at the hands of my kids and students, but initial impressions based on other reviews of both platforms, as well as a conversation with the folks at Intel, suggests that OLPC, noble philanthropic effort that it is, may actually have some room for improvement.

Is it really technically capable of connecting millions of kids to the Internet? Can the OLPC model, with its mum attitude towards necessary infrastructure (build the PCs and the infrastructure will come?), actually change the lives of these same millions? As George Ou put it,

...when it [comes] to actual criticism such as the boot times and application load times, [supporters] thought that was just fine since “it isn’t for snarky bloggers it’s for poor kids in other countries”. But that kind of self-righteous arrogance made me very uncomfortable and what is it about poor kids in other countries that makes it ok for them to have long boot times (2 minutes when I tried it last spring) and application load times (20 seconds when I tried it last spring)?

Perhaps Intel's propaganda is simply much better than OLPC's, but initial results from well-designed pilot studies with the Classmate, in which Intel partnered with telecommunications companies to ensure Internet access, provided technology integration training for teachers, and helped develop curricula to maximize utilization of the Classmate in the classroom appeared remarkably successful (as well as sustainable). It may not achieve the same penetration that Nicholas Negroponte has envisioned, but even in the States we recognize that technology must be a supplement to an existing, solid educational system. Handing funky green laptops to inner-city kids won't stop gang violence or the drug trade any more than it might end a cycle of slash and burn and subsistence farming in Brazil.

OLPC is not immune to criticism. In fact, as sales fail to materialize and the price climbs higher, OLPC may do well to listen to some of the criticism. If it plays its cards right, the huge investments in hardware and software development can still pay big dividends helping to educate children at home and abroad. I think it's going to take more than convincing some good-hearted NPR listeners to give 1 and get 1.

Topics: Intel, Laptops, PCs

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Is OLPC really immune to criticism? No, but ...

    ...neither is Vista and it's DRM. That is the irony of the blog. It exposing Georges's pro Micro$oft bias (shill).

    It was a great idea when it's was rumored to run Windows, but now since it doesn't run Windows, the 'Classmate' is the next great idea ..., go figure.

    You'll are full of it here at ZDNet. You'll don't take credibility serious.

    PS. correction: Some, I don't need to name bloggers
    • As I recall ...

      ... George also compared the XO to comparably-priced fully-functional Linux systems. That's the comparison that counts.

      Though ... I always wonder why Linux fans always ignore the fact that nearly all Linux vendors have the same hardware recommendations as Microsoft does for Windows: 1GHz+, 512MB+ RAM, 40GB+ HD.
      M Wagner
      • Linux works on your Watch and Gameboy

        Linux works in my washing machine and on my grandma's VHS recorder.

        Those hardware recommendations are only for the bloated Linux distributions running on the kind of hardware that is sold toay in stores, that kind of power consuming, expensive bloated hardware made to run the available Windows distributions.

        99% of people don't need those hardware specifications you mention to check their email and browse on the Google.
  • RE: Is OLPC really immune to criticism?

    It is only good for IMPOVERISHED children if they can EAT it.

    Send the leftover food from our many buffets over. Send water. Send medical supplies and clothing. Send educators and doctors.

    Computers? If it weren't so pathetically sad, it would be humourous.
    • Intel's approach?

      It remains to be seen how this plays out, but from what I've seen, Intel's focus is on getting computers into the hands of kids whose basic needs are already met and who could potentially benefit from tech in the classroom (because classrooms actually exist, along with a reasonable communications infrastructure). I'm afraid I can't get my head around computers in every village, paid for by governments that can't fund HIV drugs, food, or even educators to guide the kids as they use the computers.

      • I think you're dead on here

        "I'm afraid I can't get my head around computers in every village, paid for by governments that can't fund HIV drugs, food, or even educators to guide the kids as they use the computers."

        Those governments will sign on for a million XOs if someone else writes the check.
        • And others will sign the cheque

          because it gets a way to advertise into the hands of the locals.

          Seriously, Nestle goes out and tells starving women that their formula is better for their children than breast milk. So the woman spends her pittance on formula, and they both die. Coke sends out vans that do little skits in villages. Don't have any money, well we'll take your chicken. Everyone must be brought to the American way of living, even if they can't afford food. I mean it's obvious Nicole Richie cant afford food, yet look how popular she is!
          mad tabby
  • RE: Is OLPC really immune to criticism?

    I have worked in Calcutta India for the last 10 years on education and digital divide. OLPC is not a stupid idea but it is shortsighted and thinking only based on tools, which seems to me to be a typical American attitude.

    The problem is not tools. Lots of people you would not expect to have a mobile phone own one. Thats the first purchase people make and they go for ones that are in the 75usd-100usd price range. So the issue is less money to buy the tools but....

    EDUCATION! Yes that terrible old, non-techie, do the fundamentals world of teaching. Who cares if the kids can hook up to the internet if all they know how to do is click on links and eventually find songs and movies? Thats not going to help them much, although it is entertaining and impresses the foreign visitors.

    And sorry, HOle-in-the-Wall project only proved UIs are simple enough that anyone can use them with a mouse. Further studies have shown that kids in the slums neglect their actual studies to spend time playing games and "surfing" the net.

    bryan forst
    Uddami Computer Training Centre
    Kolkata, India
    • You're absolutely right, that's why it was so silly to slam the education m

      You're absolutely right, that's why it was so silly for David Pogue to slam the education minister from India as someone who wants to oppress the children of India to protect the "status quo". Last time I checked, the "status quo" in India in the area of education is working pretty well.

      I was born in China and went to a school made out of mud for the first two grades. We had no text books and we simply copied down what the teacher wrong on the black board. I learned how to read news papers by the time I finished second grade and I had enough math to last me until the sixth grade. The schools in the US taught me nothing new in math for third, fourth, and fifth grade and it bored me to death. You?re absolutely right that it isn?t about the tools.
  • Classmate costs $400, consumes 20W

    OLPX XO costs $188 and consumes 0.5W of power in black and white mode and 2W in full backlight color intensive CPU usage mode.

    Do you know the size of Intel? Don't you think that Intel has the budget to sell a few thousand Classmate laptops at a loss?

    But do you think Intel would sell a country a million Classmate laptops if they have more than $100 loss per laptop?

    Intel only wants to slow down the real cheap laptop efforts.

    What you are going to get with your test units of the Classmate is nothing else then a device that was built to look like a XO sized device. The Classmate is just a normal laptop with a CPU that's today only used in Intel based UMPCs and high-end Ultra portable laptops.
    • Give the conspiracy theories a rest

      "Don't you think that Intel has the budget to sell a few thousand Classmate laptops at a loss?"

      A few thousand at a loss, sure. One hundred thousand, possibly. One million at a loss, no way since we're not talking about the Playstation or XBox business model. Give the conspiracy theories a rest.
      • Intel's long-term roadmap and business model

        I work for Intel. Anyone who follows Intel's growth in the emerging markets will realize that we have been working in the developing nations for more than a decade. Classmate PCs is only one of our products designed to be used in these emerging markets. Classmate PC is an important business for us, and we have shared our business model and long-term roadmap with our customers and participaing vendors. This roadmap shows that we intend to have multiple skus and price points of of classmate PC in the next few years (including larger screen size, newer processors/chipset, improved battery life, etc). We believe that for us to be successful in delivering any products to the emerging markets, we need to cultivate a sustainable and healthy ecosystems. Losing money is contrary to a sustainable environment.

        We also recognize and applaud the fact that there are many (perhaps more than 50+) known projects related to low cost ICT devices for the developing worlds. This is important to ensure that the various needs of people in the emerging markets are being addressed.
        Nor Badron
  • RE: Is OLPC really immune to criticism?

    I agree for 99 % with you,what i call the technoSchizzo's
    have no idea whatsoever and focus on the 100 dollar
    combined with cute kids syndrome and perceive INTEL as
    the bad guy trying to squeeze the air out of OLPC.

    Actually it is quite surprising that Intel is hardly defending or explaining the way they see it and made
    1 capital mistake. Accepting a seat on the board of
    OLPC is regardless what you think of it a no brainer
    as OLPC is not abiding to ethical rules, fighting as
    it seem fit inside and outside the ring just as it comes and breaks promises and disrupts basic business
    models both in the US and Africa.It was not Intel who
    ended up on the wrong side of the road but it was Negroponti , the selfappointed,invited by no one other
    than himself and abusing whatever comes his way and worst, over the back of kids.Its a disgrace.

    Digital Divide is brought to a Walt Disney sort of
    theme whereby a sledge full of olpc's and HoHoHo,
    Merry Xmas simplicity and an insult to the extend and
    complexity and seriousness of the problems facing Africa and the lack of respect versus Africans what is
    good for them,better said good enough for them.

    The issue at stake is access to information for everyone,especially the poor,dirt cheap,sustainable,
    based on a business model,solid and not depending on
    charity jerkers who walk away the moment they find
    another toy.

    The challenge is frustrated by the attention for a
    laptop which is unwanted,too expensive, and taking
    funds away of investments with a much higher practical
    Each and everyone is entitled to his opinion and ideas,mistakes, misjudgements can be made and just
    to continue this walk in a dead ending road is not
    helping but hindering and better stopped today than tomorrow.
  • Negroponte was publicly accusing Intel on 60 minutes

    Negroponte was publicly accusing Intel on 60 minutes of trying to undermine his program and weeks later had to swallow his ego and let Intel on the OLPC board. It's no wonder you have people in the public that buy in to this nonsense when they've seen it on TV or heard about it on NPR.
    • Not unlike the !B/year plus for "Business Ready" Ads

      And Halo & etc,
      Then I wonder what part of 6b/year in R&D goes to legal & marketing or goes to making goofy non~standard protocols or used to Cajole & Co-opt ODM's & OEM's into non~standard & proprietary "Driver Loaded Firmware" or Lobbyist for MS OXML?

      After OLPC got some interest & press... then Intel, Asus, AT&T, Apple. MS took some interest.... Yes or No?

      Or was it just what seems to have become the "brain dead" fourth estate,
      and had to say some gibberish to polarize?

      Why don't You, Your Company, Your Parent or publisher sign up an get one?
      and give one (or More)
    • Perception vs. Reality

      Actually, Intel bought into the OLPC board in order to hedge their bets. From a business point of view Negroponte is creating a 2 billion customer market where there was none before.

      50% of the world's children (1 billion) have no electricity at home. The OLPC technology consumes 2 Watts of power; the ClassMate 65. A human can generate 15-20 Watts by pulling, cranking, pedeling, etc. A 1x1 foot solar panel also does the trick.

      Do the math as they say
    • George... about spending a little less time 'hip shooting' on other people's blogs and more spending more time on yours putting together a story with some substance?

      You've got some serious work to do.
      D T Schmitz
      • Dietrich, why are you so insistent that I not talk about this?

        Dietrich, why are you so insistent that I not talk about this? I do put together blogs WITH substance on OLPC and you're entitled to disagree with me on my position. HOWEVER, I'm not going to be silent about this topic and I'm not going to put up with artificial restrictions that I can't speak about it until I get my hands on the XO.

        The XO is hard to get a hold of even for those of us in the media and I'll get to it when I get it in my hands. But until that time, I'm going to critique the program and product based on what I know and so far, no one has been able to dispute my criticisms other than attack me on a personal level.
  • Flew over your head like a 747?

    Chris --- Your comments are surprising, especially coming from a person specializing in education.

    Did you realize the 50% of the world's children lack electricity at home? Do you appreciate the fact that the XO consumes 2 Watts of power in full color vs. 65 Watts for the ClassMate (p.s. a human can generate 20 Watts by cranking/pulling etc.) Do you realize that the OLPC Sugar GUI is designed specifically for children and is the first broad scale GUI developed since Apple and Microsoft stole the desktop metaphor from Xerox PARC (BTW desktops, file drawers, trash cans, etc. are pretty meaningless to a 6 year old.)

    You should probably get a ClassMate for your child since you have electricity and you (like George) are already addicted to the WinTel monopoly. However, WinTel is rightfully scared by OLPC. If you grew up with an OLPC from age 6-12 would you be wanting to "graduate" to WinTel? I think not.
    • Did you not read Chris saying he prefered Linux?

      "You should probably get a ClassMate for your child since you have electricity and you (like George) are already addicted to the WinTel monopoly"

      Did you not read Chris saying he prefered Linux?