Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Competition for OLPC: shameful, or good?

The CBS program "60 Minutes" recently did a feature on their show about the OLPC Project (One Laptop Per Child). OLPC is a non-profit organization devoted to developing a $100 laptop that could replace textbooks for children in developing nations, and greatly improve educational standards and opportunities.

The video is 13 minutes long, and is available on the CBS website:

What If Every Child Had A Laptop?
Lesley Stahl Reports On The Dream And The Difficulties Of Getting A Computer To Every Child

The page has a transcript of the story, as well as link to the video that was aired. I strongly recommend watching the video; it's a fascinating story, and a look at the vision OLPC is working to create.

During the course of the interview, the head of the OLPC Program, and it's inspiration, Nicholas Negroponte, blasts Intel, which has a competing product, The Classmate PC. He claims Intel is selling their laptop at reduced cost, to undermine the OLPC project. Says Negroponte:

[...] For Nicholas Negroponte it’s not just business – it’s personal. It’s about his dream, his baby.

"Has Intel hurt you and the mission?" Stahl asks.

"Yes, Intel has hurt the mission enormously," Negroponte says.

These laptops are prototypes. To get them into mass production, Negroponte needs at least 3 million orders which he thought he’d have by now. But so far he has lots of promises but no definite orders.

And he blames Intel. He spends almost all his time – about 330 days a year he says – lobbying government officials, going from one country to the next. [...]

(bold emphasis mine) What the program isn't telling you, is why governments are hesitating to place orders.

Negroponte is fond of saying that OLPC isn't a laptop program, it's an EDUCATION program. That's debatable. But there is no doubt that Negroponte has particular educational uses in mind with his laptop. Apparently he does not believe in structured curriculum or testing; teachers are supposed to be "co-learners" rather than leaders; he has some very free-thinking ideas about learning. One Laptop Per Child has based their project on a teaching method called Constructionism.

I have no objection to that; it's fine to try new things. If it works, fine. If it doesn't, then we still can learn from that. But the government education ministries and departments who are interested in purchasing these laptops don't necessarily want to spend millions to experiment on their kids: they want a solid curriculum. Some have said they want the option to run Windows and more conventional software on the laptops. The OLPC laptop, at present, can't run Windows. It uses a customized version of Linux.

Other companies, like Intel, are offering more options. Intel's Classmate PC can use Windows or Linux. If Negroponte wants to be the only game in town, so he can push his "Constructionist" education agenda, then he's not being realistic, or fair. Having multiple choices is better for everyone.

Wayan Vota at OLPC News makes the case that the competition between OLPC and Intel is a GOOD thing:

OLPC XO vs. Intel Classmate PC, a Beneficial Competition
[...] In his 60 Minutes interview, Negroponte says that "Yes, Intel has hurt the mission enormously," while in a recent lecture at MIT he accused Intel of trying to sell Classmates below cost just to dissuade governments from committing to OLPC. Professor Negroponte's summation of all this?:

"Intel should be ashamed of itself. It’s just – it’s just shameless."

Actually, no, Dr. Negroponte, its not shameless at all, its competition. Beneficial competition for everyone involved: OLPC, Intel, and the developing world.

First off, the pressure from Intel has made OLPC more responsive to government realities. Gone is Negroponte' arrogance around only dealing with heads of state and only for one million unit orders. He is now more open to different stakeholders and more manageable laptop lots. Gone is a Constructionist focus from the OLPC mission statement, replaced by a new-found focus on educational content.

Next, Intel is engaging in the All-American game of catch-up to the OLPC thought leadership. Intel is increasing its focus on the developing world as a real market, by developing new computing products like the Classmate PC. It is also centering the World Ahead program on the developing world outside of India and China. Last but not least, OLPC has broken Intel from its Microsoft myopia, spurring a Linux Classmate PC.

Now the real winners in this competition are the people in the developing world. [...]

Bravo! Wayan nails it down! See the full article for the embedded links, and further examples of why this competition is all for the good.

And Bravo to the OLPC team, for thinking outside of the box and creating an incredible machine that many people thought could not be done. Now, instead of whining about competition, think outside the box again and start marketing what you created, in order to finance the mission's vision.

OLPC's XO laptop can revolutionize the laptop industry, not just in developing countries, but worldwide. Many people, adult individuals as well as students in the developed and prosperous nations, would gladly pay for a commercial version, which could subsidize the OLPC Project. Some capitalistic savy and know-how can even help the dreams of a non-profit organization come true. Let's hope the OLPC project decides to take the best of both worlds and run with it.


Dionne said...

I appreciate you posting on this, didn't know anything about it until reading your post.

Chas said...

It's a fascinating video. In it, Negroponte talks about the importance of children teaching other children. It's worth noting that in the videos by Intel of kids working with the Classmate PCs, the same thing was happening; kids will do that. It's not unique to OLPC.

Yet Negroponte really is aiming his laptop at some of the poorest children, places without electricity. The XO laptop has very low wattage, and can be charged with a hand crank. I don't know how well the Classmate PC would do in that kind of situation. It's good that there are multiple machines being developed.

It seems there is a big push comming, to get BILLIONS of people world wide onto the internet. Now it's happening even in the poorest and remotest villages.

Seeing these kids go from primitive rural living to internet junkies is fascinating, even a bit shocking. I have to wonder if there is going to be any unintended consequences from all of this.