Negroponte: "We're the World Food Program and they're McDonald's"

The title quote is Nicholas Negroponte’s in a response to Intel quitting Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) in an interview with David Kirkpatrick of Fortune.

Intel has quit its support of OLPC citing that “OLPC had asked Intel to end our support for non-OLPC platforms, including the Classmate PC, a developing world low-cost laptop running Windows.

Negroponte rebuts that Intel, who was a partner and board member, had not delivered on any of its promises and been perpetually disloyal by in sales meetings claiming that “The (OLPC) XO doesn’t work, and you have no idea the mistake you’ve made.” Intel were the ones that formally quit, but they were already on probation and notes Negroponte “If you’re in school and you are on probation for very serious misdemeanors you can say you quit, but…”.

While Intel’s actions as reported are calamitous, Negroponte’s comparison of OLPC to the United Nations World Food Program is unfortunate in it’s own way. The goals of OLPC are in every way as honorable as those of the World Food Program and it is amazing what Negroponte and his team have achieved, but it is difficult to understand why the OLPC should not operate more in line with the open market.

Last January I found myself in an elevator with Negroponte who was clutching one of the very first prototypes of the XO (“the engineers will kill me if I drop it on the floor”). I immediately asked him “why can’t I just buy one? Why a 100.000 unit order minimum?” The obvious answer was that he needed scale, but it was one that I still fundamentally have a hard time accepting.

Mind you OLPC and the low price tag it carries is an ambitious project which has been designed from scratch, but why is it that OLPC should be better at producing and distributing the XO than Michael Dell or Paul Otellini’s treacherous – but seemingly efficient – crew?

Back to the question of scale. Negroponte told an audience at Forrester that the OLPC-patented display technology would not be licensed freely in order to secure the display manufacturer amortization of a $2 billion display fab.

While Negroponte is probably right that this was the only way to kickstart things, his next big task is to step back and let the market forces accelerate the distribution to children of laptops built on an open GPL’ed OPLC reference design.

Commoditization has worked great for the PC. Why should the OLPC not make this work in its favor?