Once again, competition breeds innovation

No sooner had the electronic "ink" dried on Chris Dawson's piece (OLPC and Intel part ways) that Intel confirmed that the Classmate lives on with a next generation already in the works!  Well surprise, surprise!

Marc Wagner

No sooner had the electronic "ink" dried on Chris Dawson's piece (OLPC and Intel part ways) that Intel confirmed that the Classmate lives on with a next generation already in the works!  Well surprise, surprise!  Ever since the Intel Classmate was announced (see A quick update on the Classmate) it was clearly superior to the OLPC sponsored XO -- for three very important reasons:

  1. It is expandable using hardware solutions available from a variety of vendors.
  2. With sufficient RAM and (virtual) disk, it runs any x86-based operating system without modification. 
  3. The Classmate sells at a price-point only a few dollars higher than the XO.

Okay, so the XO has some interesting and innovative technology found nowhere else.  This new technology is largely unproven and demand for it is lukewarm, at best.  The OLPC Foundation wants to sell it without technical support and wonders why there are so few takers among third-world governments. 

Intel addresses this need for support through comprehensive training -- and since it is basically a vanilla laptop PC (circa 2000) -- their support structure is already in place. 

Whether you're  a Linux geek or a Windows fan (or even daring enough to attempt to hack Mac OS X to run on the Classmate), if your needs are limited and your coffers sparse, the Intel Classmate is by far the better choice. 

While there is plenty of opportunity to quibble over the benefits (or lack thereof) offered by 1:1 computing in Education IT, if you are pursuing such a strategy, the Intel Classmate offers the one thing educators must have -- flexibility.  The XO cannot offer educators such flexibility. 

In the developing world, the XO has a slight edge since it is designed to be very energy efficient but it is still dependent upon some basic level of network infrastructure and -- ever since the hand-crank was omitted from the XO design, very little has been said about recharging these devices in the absence of electricity. 

My prediction is that those XO's purchased by Americans for $400 (with an identical machine bound for the developing world) will, within the year, find themselves delegated to most kid's pile of unused gadgets while the robust family computer (or it's hand-me-down sibling) will retain it's place in the household as the computer of choice. 

Ultimately, the OLPC Foundation accomplished a most important goal by demonstrating to hardware vendors the huge market potential of the developing world.  In doing so, they opened up this market to competition.  Generally speaking, competition breeds innovation (hence the title of this piece) but in this case, Nicholas Negroponte has demonstrated (much to his chagrin, I am sure) that innovation can also breed competition! 

Too bad he doesn't recognize the benefits to all -- including those schoolchildren he wishes to help.