MIT Media Lab founder Nick Negroponte's (right) non-profit start-up has been sanctimonious, self-righteous, financially unsuccessful, a satire of 1960s-era earnestness people find easy to put down.
Yet he keeps soldiering on. Despite recent layoffs, they still have big plans. This includes a new touchscreen interface that may be pure vapor. And news that their next box, XO-2, will use open source hardware.
Now might be a good time to tote up some of OLPC's real achievements, things Nick Negroponte has a right to be proud of no matter what happens going forward:
- OLPC pioneered what has become the Netbook market. Real Netbooks have more memory and cost more, but the basic idea of no moving parts originated with OLPC.
- OLPC has pushed competition toward the lowest ends of the price curve. Consider this announcement from India of a $10 laptop.
- OLPC has refocused attention on the education market. One of the great frustrations of my parenting career is that my son, whose handwriting is as bad as mine, never had a light typewriter with which he could overcome the problem. Laptops cost too much to bring to school. Now, as he graduates high school, his requirements are being taken seriously.
I don't think Negroponte ever understood the pushback he has gotten. Some of it is political, some of it is anti-Americanism, some of it is business contempt for an academic trying to play at CEO, and some is down to his non-profit business model.
Nevertheless he has kept moving forward, which is what entrepreneurs do. OLPC-1 did a lot of good for a lot of people, although not that much for OLPC. It tried to pioneer in design like Apple. Now it says it will use the open source process like Google.
My guess is that, again, a lot of people will benefit. OLPC may not be among them. But I'm also beginning to think that Negroponte doesn't care so much about that, and is more concerned with pushing technology history forward just a little bit.
That was always his main goal anyway.