One Laptop Per Child will succeed even if it "fails"

The way people are dismissing the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project this week reminds me of how people were treating Hillary Clinton during the five days between her Iowa defeat and her New Hampshire comeback. To many observers, the inevitable has become the disaster in record time.

Some of the anti-OLPC notes that have appeared since Intel was kicked out of the project have been well-reasoned (read the Economist‘s near-obituary and Nikolaj Nyholm on Radar) — but much of the anti-OLPC opining has deteriorated to personal attack on OLPC head Nicholas Negroponte. There are plenty of forces that want OLPC to fail commercially. And, for a variety of reasons, it might.

But what does “fail” mean in the market OLPC is trying to serve? Regardless of whether it’s the XO laptop, Intel’s Classmate, Pixel Qi, or some other endeavor, it’s now far more likely that ultra-low-cost PCs are going to be made available in quantity for a developing world that needs them. (It needs clean water and vaccines more, of course, but it needs inexpensive and efficient IT as well.) And, most important, even if the XO laptop fails in the marketplace, none of this activity — commercial and otherwise — would have happened without the breakthrough OLPC project to start it.

P.S. To learn more about the XO laptop’s technology, I recommend this post from “Bunnie” Huang. To understand an unexpected example of its utility, see Mike Hendrickson, here on Radar.

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  • While I’ve been critical (but hopeful) of the program, I’m aware that in a potentially more important way, OLPC has *already* succeeded: the educational needs of children in under-developed countries is being discussed on the world stage.

    The motivations for the discussion are arguably less important than the fact it has our collective Attention. That’s worth noting and for that reason I’d say OLPC has done enough to earn everyone’s respect.

  • I’d like to see what these various laptops end up being used for. For that, we need some time. If I had a nickel for every time I heard that hoary story about the farmer in rural Whozistan who makes use of IT to be aware of the best time to take his crop to market, I could singlehandedly fund any number of global initiatives to address poverty, health, etc. But what are we actually going to see, and how will it contribute to education, public health, etc.?

  • The comment by Negropointe on the Intel vs the OLPC debate got silly when he said:
    “The main difference is that we’re the UN world food program, and they’re (Intel)MacDonald’s”.
    The last time I looked, MacDonalds has served more meals than the world food program has ever produced, and continues to do so.

  • How is that silly? Negroponte’s saying he wants to take these little computers into areas of the world that aren’t the low-hanging fruit of rampant consumerism. The local food kitchen isn’t McDonald’s either, but fills a certain need better than McDonald’s wants or cares to. Just so long as Negroponte didn’t declare himself Mayor McCheese.

  • Jenn

    I was just reading an article over at PC World about OLPC’s plan to move into low-income American schools (,141298-c,notebooks/article.html – via /.)…I did some volunteer work teaching low-income elementary school students how to use digital cameras and we had maybe 30 mins of computer time per week on slow cruddy computers with slow internet. The students were dying to get on those machines and we had to tear them away every week. Only one student even had a computer at home, so their parents couldn’t even look at the great work they were doing making a website. I would be first in line to write a grant to get them some of those laptops. The OLPC group deserves a lot of credit just for making an idea like this possible.

  • Alex Tolley

    The OLPC succeeded just in making the idea of cheap, low cost computers a viable reality. Some of their ideas are also very good and should be considered for more commercially viable products.

  • Hmmm. Would the eeePC have happened if not for the OLPC project? 2008 does look like being the year of the cheap, linux powered, sub-notebook. Talk around the OLPC *might* have helped kick start that but I don’t really think there’s a connection. However it’s beginning to look to me that market forces will result in devices that fill the OLPC requirements without all the hand wringing.

  • Anon

    (Deliberately choosing to stay anonymous for this post).

    So I work for a government agency of a large, non-3rd-world asia-pacific country. We were very interested in buying 5000-10,000 OLPC, but they just weren’t interested. I understand how they wanted large orders to help with economies of scale, but 100,000 was just so far away from what we could justify it was impossible to come to an arrangement. Given that they ended up selling less that 200,000 our order could/would have added a decent extra bit of scale. I’m sure there were other countries in similar situations.

    I’ve played with an OLPC, and they are a wonderful piece of technology. I’d have loved to have been able to make a deal happen, and I hope we’ll be able to work something out in the future. (For those who have played with an eePC – the OLPC is MUCH better)

  • What was it that Ben Kenobi said to Darth in the docking bay in Episode IV?


  • I remember in Argentina, 20 years ago, there was a nationwide food program called “PAN” (“Plan Alimentario Nacional). It consisted in the distribution of boxes of food in the poorest areas of the country. The program would have been great if… those boxes really had landed in the hands of those who needed it. They actually landed in the hands of politicians, and their friends; some boxes did arrive to poor people, of course; particularly in front of the cameras, during politic meetings and so on.

    If this happened with food, I cannot imagine a single of these computers getting into the hands of children. Not a single one. It’s not Negroponte’s fault, mind you; governments in third-world countries are far more corrupt than he imagines.

    I hope I’m wrong, though.

    And, besides, I don’t think that giving out computers (or anything else, for that matter) will change anything to the state of the world. This OLPC / XO thing seems doomed to me from the very start.

    It’s not that these computers aren’t valuable, but rather that the program intentions are based into a more general notion of charity, which is already proven to be completely useless in the long term. It’s not with charity that you change anything other than your own conscience. If we really wanted to stop hunger, poverty and everything else, we should change our economical system first, based in the simple fact of buying cheap commodities in the south, making enhanced goods in the north, and selling them back in the south, avoiding any serious industrial development whatsoever, in armed ways if needed.

  • its really sad. if OLPC or XO, if Classmate or whatever it all doesn¬¥t matter.

    the only really important thing is that the poor people (especially the childs) have the chance to get one and can learn with it for a better future. that matters not the hole “sh*t” marketing discussion.

  • I completelly agree, but would be better if the OLPC succeds. And when are the Xo’s comming to europe??

  • Crawford

    Well said. Providing access to knowledge is the goal. If it were easy, or without risks and setbacks, it would have been accomplished by now. Let’s keep trudging.

  • Martin Owen

    If it was just about a CPU it wouldn’t matter if it was intel or OX….. however it is abut the educational use of ICT. The OX comes pre-loaded with apps that are well conceived for education- it embodies a model of learning and development activity.
    The intel and competing products will do what? Run expensive MS product? Office clones?…
    5t’s the whole package that counts.

  • Very nicely put together article this is for sure. Many might say, people don`t have food which is most basic thing, make that available for affordable price. I feel we need to work on all aspects of life together, because IT, construction, basic needs all at some stage meet up. Great article for readers like myself, keep up the great work.

  • Jimmy, your linking to the attack on Wayan Vota and OLPC news is poorly considered. It has been completely discredited and simply visiting the site ( would tell you that. Intel does not support OLPC News, and I’d even go so far to say that the site is better publicity for the OLPC than the organization itself.

    I’ll also disclose that I’ve met Wayan, specifically because he runs OLPC news and I’ve been doing some XO software development. He’s a good guy, but he doesn’t support me financially, unless you count paying for the nachos at the last DC OLPC meetup I attended.

  • I see they ended the ‘Give one Get one’ program on 12/31/07.

    Does anyone know why? It would seem that this program would have a lot of appeal – especially in the IT profession who can easily afford one to play with.

    They even mention that some people in this program may not have received their laptop yet – are they having production problems?

    I guess it can be argued that the third world needs many things – but I think the case can be made that they need information first and foremost. You can’t fix a problem you don’t know you have – “…if that dirty water was good enough for mom and dad, it’s good enough for me”. (etc ad nauseum)

  • I can vouch for Wayan Vota, too. He went through some rigorous training here at Santa Clara University this past summer, and then he became more obsessed with the XO than I was. One support of the OLPC thought his was a site for trolls, and I said it really wasn’t. It does serve as a good site for discourse, some of which is just this side of ad hominem attacks on other posters. I don’t agree with all his postings, and most of the comments are from technical people in rich countries. Nothing wrong with that, but as the XOs get used I hope we see some teachers from Peru, and maybe kids from Rwanda, but I know the Internet costs in those places are quite high.

    Ross wondered what these machines would really do for country X or school system Y. That’s a fair question, given what is missing in so many school systems everywhere, and to a lesser degree in my wife’s primary school here in Silicon Valley (which always amazes people when I tell them).

    My experience is limited but it has been in schools in Jordan and Uganda and in telecenters in Ecuador and with indigenous groups in rural America, Thailand, and Guatemala. When you have bright people whether they are teachers or kids, and they don’t have many books (forget about libraries in most places) or sources of info, then having access, even for an hour a week, has been a very great improvement for most of them. Whether it is worth the investment is another question. The Uganda project I evaluated had CRTs and desktop machines that drew so much electricity and produced enough heat that we needed two ACs (more electrical needs) and the costs of the electricy exceeded the instructor and the Internet charges. Neither USAID, the subcontractor, nor the Ugandans had anticipated that. I think we will see some unexpected things happening besides competition from other lower cost computers.

    When we talk about low cost, that’s sort of subjective. I used to think that a battery run portable radio was the cheapest device and available to all, but one UK NGO surveyed some women in rural Uganda and found that the men took the batteries when they left so the women could not use it if they were gone. So even if something is really cheap, people may not have access.

    Cheap mobile phones are having a huge impact, but the XO, Classmate, and others are still too costly for those poor people who may want a computer, thus we have to count on these govt. programs for purchase as well as public access ones in libraries and telecenters.

  • I very much disagree with the viewpoint that OLPC will be a success if it means cheap computers will be sold by the commercial sector to developing countries. The most important goals of OLPC are

    1)Make the hardware require little or no maintenance cost and to a degree future proof so it will not be obsolete quickly

    2)Use free open source software

    Does a windows pc that needs an internet connection, plugging in to the grid constantly and has a cooling fan that also sucks in dust really what developing countries need?

    What happens when all the software requires a new version of windows, who will pay for that?

    The new bloated versions of software that requires more and more powerful hardware is fine in the west were we can afford to buy that if we only get a 42″ plasma screen and leave the 52″ for next year – but in developing countries the choices re somewhat more serious.

  • I¬¥m from Uruguay, where the first OLPC¬¥s were deployed, and I think it¬¥s a great project.
    Kids in rural public schools are getting their OLPC¬¥s and surfing the web, learning Logo, taking pictures, making videos, probably some kind of Office Suite, etc. They are entering an era, a way of thinking which they would have never reached otherwise, at least not at such young age. Think Google, think WikiPedia…
    You should check their blogs:

  • Jimmy,

    In reading your post I couldn’t agree more. I see the change Negroponte’s idea has brought to the international development field as an accomplishment already formalized, with companies like Pixel Qi brining additional benefits.

    But I have to disagree with your supposition that SVS and /. accusations about me are in any way accurate. In addition to the commenters who already vouched for me on your blog, I will add Mary Lou Jepsen precise quote:

    “Calling Wayan an Intel employee is like calling me one.”

  • Thanks to Wayan for noting the error. I’ve removed it from the post and I want to emphasize it here for those reading the comments.