OLPC revisited - a skeptics view

Nicholas Negroponte's arrogance and naivety has finally come home to roost. Too few governments are willing to invest in unproven technology and too many competitors are coming out of the woodwork. OLPC cannot corner the market that Dr. Negroponte seeks.

From the first time I read about Nicholas Negroponte's brainchild I thought that there were major problems with it -- not because it wasn't a worthwhile goal but because it was based upon excessively optimistic expectations that:

  • participating governments will assume all distribution costs
  • participating governments will provide unrestricted Internet access for OLPC
  • participating governments will accept out-of-hand the hardware/software provided by OLPC
  • participating hardware/software vendors will do so on a not-for-profit basis
  • non-participating hardware/software vendors will stand by while their competitors profit from OLPC

Initially, Dr. Negroponte envisioned that 100 million OLPC laptops could be delivered to the Third World each year.  Considering that this is a significant portion of the world-wide production of for-profit PCs, this was a ludicrous expectation. 

Dr. Negroponte went out of his way to select or reject participating vendors -- regardless of their willingness to take part in the OLPC project -- going so far as to openly attack any solution which included commercial software.  Initially, he even rejected the placing of e-books on the OLPC laptop -- insisting instead that all OLPC devices would have direct access to the Internet, provided by the respective government. 

Many of Dr. Negroponte's expectations have been dashed:

  • Third-World governments are not clamoring for an advanced but unproven technology
  • the growth of Internet access in the Third-World is due almost entirely through private investment in for-profit ventures
  • vendors which were effectively cut-out of the OLPC initiative have concluded that even a modest success for OLPC is too big a potential market to ignore
  • those very hardware/software vendors have found a way to make a profit on OLPC devices through the use of more conventional technologies at comparable prices
  • much to Dr. Negroponte's chagrin, consumer demand for Microsoft Windows (whether purchased or pirated) has not waned -- and Third-World governments know it

Now Dr. Negroponte and his followers are trying to push these OLPC laptops onto the American educational system.  Clearly, his hope is to create demand for his brainchild.  His excuse is the deplorable condition of funding in America's schools.  OLPC will not solve that problem.  Using the money spent on hundreds of lame OLPC money could be much better spent on tens of fully-functional life-cycle-funded computers which could serve the needs of thousands of students. 

Computers are tools, nothing more -- still putting insufficient tools into the hands of our children -- especially those of the working poor, who cannot go out and buy their own fully-functional computers, only perpetuates the gulf that exists.

Should the OLPC effort to place laptops in the hands of Third-World move forward?  Of course it should -- because otherwise those school children have no access to information.

Should all vendors be welcome to take part in such an initiative?  Absolutely -- competition fosters innovation and the modest successes of OLPC have already changed the landscape for those vendors who feel threatened by the OLPC initiative.