In a wide-ranging interview with Xconomy, Nicholas Negroponte and Charles Kane (OLPC president) discussed future directions for the company after this month's major layoffs. The take-home messages?
Last year's Give One Get One program was a dismal failure. With almost $20 million in marketing (most of it donated by Amazon), they saw $2.5 million in sales. I'm not usually one to say I told you so, but...
Similarly, it's quite clear that OLPC needs to get out of the hardware business. There is too much brilliance in the organization to be bogged down in manufacturing and distribution concerns, as well as too much to be gained by local economies producing the devices.
It’s not exactly in a non-profit’s wheelhouse to be running such an operation, and “in a perfect world we wouldn’t have built this computer ourselves,” Negroponte says. Neither he nor Kane, however, think the basic situation will change in the near term. “As much as we’d love to I don’t think we can just get out of it,” Kane says. “It’s not clear who would partner in a not-for-profit scenario.”
That said, OLPC is changing the way it designs its machines, hopefully pointing the way to getting out of the manufacturing business farther down the road. The next version, XO 2.0, is some 18 months out. Rather than doing the whole design in-house, the new plan is to outsource as much of the work as possible. Ideally, “what we should do is build something akin to a reference design that other people can freely use,” says Kane. “The idea would be to hand off 2.0 so that partners would manufacture the product and sell the product through their own channels.”
This just happens to be precisely the model that Intel has used with great success for it's Classmate PC, despite having significantly greater manufacturing chops than most non-profits.
Interestingly, Negroponte is no longer suggesting that he'd like his company to be more Microsoft-like. Rather,
“Going forward, I’m fond of saying, our first four years we behaved like Apple,” he says. The XO, he says, is “designed beautifully, it’s in the Museum of Modern Art, it’s the best of breed. In the next four years, we’ve got to behave like Google and get to lots of people doing lots of things that are really for learning, for kids and for the developing world.”
We'll see where this goes, but if OLPC can do for educational models what they did for the netbook market, then there is a lot of good still to be had from the organization.