Sunday, January 06, 2008

Intel and OLPC no longer "Classmates"

OLPC's founder Nicholas Negroponte recently traded barbs with Intel over the development of cheap laptops for poor children in developing countries and accused the chip giant of viewing children as a market whereas OLPC views them as a mission. "It's a bit like McDonald's competing with the World Food Program," he commented.

That's a naive view. Part of Negroponte's model was that with orders in the multi-millions, mass production would drive the price of its XO laptop down to the $100 goal. That model is now crushed. Visionaries are always imagining what can be done without the friction & expense of competition, but any human endeavour that gathers momentum inevitably turns into a pissing match.

OLPC's counter-argument against critics who suggested that the poor children may need basic items like food first is: "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

True. But giving away a laptop doesn't necessarily materialise into an education for the child. What use is technology if malnourished children are unable to develop cognitively and physically?

And even if the price of the laptop drops to $100 as envisioned, that's just the cost of the hardware, without considering the added costs of support or producing content for these laptops.

The problem with OLPC's mission is that it now looks like a bunch of ivory-towered academics got together and decided they are going to go from making zero computers a year to making 10 million unit in one go. Anybody who has worked in creating deeply technical products that create customer value, rather than the acclaim of your peers, knows that you have to listen to your customer, and walk before you run. Precisely the opposite of the Soviet-style OLPC.

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