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Is OLPC really immune to criticism?

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.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

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: ...is 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.

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