IT is a soulless business. So when the chance comes to make a difference to something more than the bottom line, it's no surprise that enthusiasm can border on fanaticism. We've seen rather too much over-egged greenery, but the cause of educational computing for the developing world continues to excite. It's certainly excited Red Hat and AMD, who have been keen to help with the One Laptop Per Child project.
A noble cause, and one that the organisation's chairman, Nicholas Negroponte, has pursued with a zeal bordering on the religious. Although part of the plan is to squeeze margins down to nanotech thinness, it would be wrong and unhelpful to ignore the commercial implications: indeed, the OLPC organisation has been clear to say that the computer is to be purchased, not given away or subsidised. Other tech players such as Intel and Microsoft also see this as a legitimate market. The chipmaker has its own range of affordable PCs marketed under its World Ahead programme, including the Classmate, which competes head on with the OLPC machine.
And that's upset Negroponte — especially when he claims that Intel is using some of its notoriously robust marketing tactics. Intel responds that it's been working on options for the developing world for some time: we say that if the OLPC was closer to its target $100 price than the current $170-odd, then Intel's $200-plus choice would be of far less consequence. And while Red Hat's reuse of 85 percent of OLPC code for its Linux Classmate OS may seem irksome, isn't that the entire point of open source?
One of the mainstays of IT innovation has always been that competition leads to better and cheaper products. If Negroponte has faith in his device to deliver what he claims it will, then competition from Intel, and any other hardware maker, should be seen as just that. One Laptop per Child does not have to mean one design for all. Western consumers expect choice, and we should expect nothing less for the developing world.