The CBS show “60 Minutes” did a segment on the One Laptop Per Child project this past Sunday, with Nicholas Negroponte. It was good to see. The first half of the segment was devoted to Negroponte’s inspiration for the project, and seeing it to fruition. They showed children in one or two developing countries using it in the classrooms, and at home. They briefly showed some of the members of the OLPC development team. The major theme was that the OLPC promotes education. He said that a lot of children in these countries don’t go to school, and that the OLPC has helped rejuvenate education. He said that in the areas where the OLPC has been introduced school attendance has risen 50%. Word gets out among the children that “school is cool!” He said there are also areas that have no teachers, and therefore no school. He wants to get computers into the hands of those children as well, because he considers it to be a “school in a box.”
The next half was devoted to other, commercial players that want to get in on the action as well, especially Intel. They focused on the rivalry between OLPC and Intel, which could also be seen as a “proxy war” against AMD, whose CPU is used in the OLPC. Intel has come out with its own small-scale laptop for use in the classrooms in developing nations. Negroponte charged that Intel is producing its computers at below cost to undercut OLPC. I wonder, if this is true, if this is illegal. I’m not sure, since the sales are not in the U.S. Anyway, Negroponte looked pretty steamed about it. Intel’s Craig Barrett was interviewed, and he acted like they were doing nothing wrong, and just competing in the market. The conflict puts OLPC in an odd position, because they’re a non-profit, and they’re going up against for-profit companies who are looking for growth opportunities in developing countries.
The 60 Minutes segment indicated that OLPC has not had the sales numbers that they expected. Negroponte indicated that he’s been travelling around a lot trying to counter FUD against OLPC produced by the commercial interests.
Interesting. I didn’t expect it to play out this way. What came to mind as I watched it is that OLPC, out of its motivation to help kids in developing countries, has validated a market that commercial interests are now paying attention to. The commercial interests feel like they’ve got to get their foot in the door, or they could be shut out by the OLPC if it was allowed to go unchallenged in that market. I understand this rationale. It feels sad it’s come to this though. I think the OLPC is a wonderful vision of what computing can be. Not to say I think all computers should be just like it, but it’s great seeing kids use it.