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The $100 Laptop for Kids - Where it Went Wrong

Where the OLPC Went Right (and Wrong)
We're almost three years into the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program, and things are not looking good for the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte. Negroponte is not just the founder of the OLPC Foundation, but he is also a professor at MIT, a founder of Wired magazine, a board member of Motorola, and was recently brought on by the Wall Street Journal to ensure that publication's editorial integrity following its purchase by News Corp. Clearly, he's a busy, busy man.

Since unveiling it in January of 2005, Negroponte has been known as the master of the OLPC initiative. The goal was to create a $100 laptop for educational purposes and get it into the hands of up to 150 million children across the developing world within 4 years. Three years later, it turns out that Negroponte's goals are unattainable, at least according to a recent story at the 'Wall Street Journal'. He has learned the hard way that getting pledges and promises is not the same as an order on paper and cash in hand.

A proper examination of the successes and failures of the OLPC Program could fill a book, but that won't stop us from trying to condense the information into an easy-to-digest blog post:

Where it went right:
To be sure, the OLPC XO is a marvel of engineering. It is extremely efficient, able to derive energy from optional solar panels, foot pedals, and draw strings when outlets are unavailable. The batteries used are even special. The XO uses an extremely inexpensive ($10) nickel-metal hydride or LiFePO4 battery that is less volatile than traditional lithium-ion batteries found in laptops. It will also survive four times as many recharges before capacity takes a nose dive.

Then there is the screen. It uses a beautiful dual-mode, high-resolution, sunlight-readable, ultra low power LCD that has tech mavens marveling.

OLPC has also inspired others to join the effort, producing their own low cost laptops aimed at the developing world and driving companies and philanthropists to donate to OLPC and other similar programs.

Where it went wrong:
A $100 laptop was an ambitious goal -- perhaps too ambitious. Even before it became obvious that the economies of scale would not bail out the project, the price had climbed to $150. And when deals collapsed, that number shot up to its current resting place of $188.

A price like that puts it with in spitting distance of the $230 Windows-equipped Intel Classmate PC, Intel's machine that was inspired by Negroponte's organization. Competition from these other initiatives has hurt the OLPC's bottom line, driving up costs by reducing orders of the XO.

This brings us to the single biggest failure of the organization: marketing. OLPC may be a non-profit, but businesses such as Intel and Microsoft, who were left out of the OLPC party, have a vested interest in spreading their wares around the globe and preventing Linux and AMD from entrenching themselves in developing markets. Good intentions alone can not keep the foundation alive. The marketing muscle and high profit margins of the big technology companies give them a leg up on Negroponte's little non-profit. Microsoft has started offering a $3 software bundle that includes Windows, Office and educational programs, and Intel has the aforementioned Classmate all taking a bite out of the XO's market share.

The tale is not over for the XO. Intel joined the board of the foundation in July, and a new Intel-powered OLPC model is in the works. The OLPC foundation also has plenty of funding to survive at least another year or two before things begin to get shaky. The effect of the OLPC foundation has been a net positive for the world, but whether or not it can survive the trials and tribulations of its own quest for technological penetration remains to be seen.

From the Wall Street Journal

Related links:

Tags: $100 laptop, $100Laptop, classmate, non profit, non-profit, NonProfit, olpc, olpc xo, OlpcXo, one laptop per child, OneLaptopPerChild, xo

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