Saturday, January 05, 2008

Two Laptops, No Children

Just a few months after One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)'s triumphant launch, the effort has been dealt a major blow: Intel has withdrawn its support for the program. This is the latest in a series of difficulties the program has faced — it had already doubled its price-point goal of $100 and drastically lowered sales expectations due to unexpected competition.

Technologically and financially, Intel's support is not critical to the success of OLPC; it runs on an AMD chip, and the company had only made good on a third of its promised $18 million donation. No, the real problem is that the dispute arose over Intel's Classmate PC. The Classmate is, arguably, a well-designed classroom computer that governments appear to prefer to the OLPC. Depending on which account you read, the arrangement fell through either because OLPC wanted Intel to abandon the Classmate or because Intel's sales organization was intentionally undermining the OLPC.

If you care about OLPC's mission, which is more accurate doesn't really matter. The real problem is that while most accounts have suggested that the Classmate and the OLPC are head-to-head products (along with the Asus Eee PC), that isn't the case. The OLPC is a fundamentally new product, whereas the Classmate and the Eee PC are not. While the latter two are, at best, very well built laptops that are affordable for developing countries, the OLPC is a very well built educational tool that is designed to serve developing countries.


  • The OLPC was designed to be run where electricity is a scarce and unreliable commodity: running for 5 hours — potentially twice that in ebook mode — on a full battery (the Classmate runs a typical 2-4 hours) and rechargeable by hand.
  • The OLPC automatically creates a mesh network in the presence of other OLPCs and can detect WiFi signals up to 2 kilometers away (compared to standard WiFi on the Classmate).
  • A core capability of the OLPC is eToys, a game-like, graphical, educational programming environment (on the other hand, the Classmate can run Office!).
Having experienced the local school board's decision to switch from Mac to Windows when I was in high school, based on the well-intentioned but utterly false supposition that learning on Windows better prepares one for a Windows-based workplace, I am not surprised that governments are choosing the Classmate. Who wouldn't choose the machine backed by a multibillion dollar company, running the software that every other country runs?

But if you're a kid in Iraq, where the electricity is on 8-12 hours a day, or Afghanistan, where "normal" Internet access is only available via satellite, which laptop would you want?

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