The Net has been abuzz with reports of the smaller-than-expected orders for the first batches of Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child
) which has suffered nearly a year’s delay and now costs considerably more than its original $100 target price. Yet despite the smug reports of underwhelming orders and accusations of pushing inappropriate, second-rate technology on unassuming third-worlders, the OLPC may have accomplished its primary mission -- to help accelerate the education of kids in developing nations and to help them connect with an increasingly-wired world. While not all of the millions of students Negroponte hoped to serve will be toting his OLPC, the other low-cost units that are jumping in to compete with it would never have existed had this audacious project not been there to define a market that was previously-invisible to narrow-minded corporate knuckleheads.
I’ve had a good laugh watching giants like Microsoft
falling all over themselves to get a piece of the action now that OLPC has done most of the heavy lifting to prove that computers were an essential part of a market-based solution for lifting the world’s poor out of misery. I stand in amazement that, less than a year after Intel’s Craig Barrett dismissed the OLPC as "the $100 gadget," they have been aggressively pushing their own low-cost Classmate laptop
in selected countries (it’s funny how they seem to be unavailable here in the US or other so-called first-world nations). Whether the Microsoft and Intel programs are really intended to give a boost to a significant number of underprivileged kids, or if they’re simply window dressing on the company’s efforts to maintain their monopolies, you can bet that they would not exist if it were not for Professor Negroponte's innovative machine.
OLPC has also stimulated a tremendous amount of activity amongst Asian computer makers to grab a chunk of this new market. One of the more promising efforts is VIA’s PC-1 Initiative
, a program also aimed at putting VIA power-efficient processors into rugged, low-power laptops and PCs that can be run off solar power if necessary. Not to be outdone, Mainland China has at least one low-cost PC effort in the works in the form of a PC box from ZhongKe Menglan Electronics. Powered by the Godson-2, a home-grown, 1 GHz-class MIPS-like RISC processor, it’s expected to sell for around $125. Of course all the excitement has also drawn out the opportunists and scam artists, including the Medson Celebrity, a sexy-looking $150 laptop being pitched from an amateurish, half-completed web site
that makes one wonder if there’s really a product for sale or whether simply slick vaporware.
This is not to say that Professor Negroponte and his OLPC program cannot be faulted for any number of shortcomings. There has been some honest speculation
by John Dvorak and others who see the OLPC as “an insulting ‘let them eat cake’ sort of message to the world's poor” and rightly question whether it’s appropriate to focus on giving PCs to kids while there are still not enough resources to provide even basic food and water to a half-billion of the World’s poorest citizens. With 15 million children dying of hunger each year, it is right to question whether a $100 PC is really the best and highest use of scarce development funds.
Nevertheless, despite any misgivings that Dvorak’s thoughtful criticism may have stirred in me, I have concluded that getting empowering technologies into the hands of the citizens of developing nations is just as essential to their long-term well-being as building schools, sanitary facilities, and establishing a healthcare infrastructure. While emergency food aid, well-building, and other remedial efforts are a critical part of any relief effort, the only way to help people towards a sustainable future lies in giving them the tools to build their own infrastructure and a working economy. Although they are not a complete solution, computers like the OLPC do have an essential place alongside the foot-powered water pumps, freight-carrying bicycles, and cell phone-based micro-loan offices that are already bringing hope and modest prosperity to some communities across Africa and Asia.
Only time will tell if the OLPC will enjoy the massive popularity its creators had hoped for, or if it will be pushed aside as market forces create a more useful commercial alternative. But, regardless of whether it is a commercial success or not, it has already served its mission to kick the industry in the ass and get them thinking about the other 4.5 billion people we share the planet with as neighbors, fellow citizens, and potential customers. In doing so, Professor Negroponte has launched a billion hopeful dreams.
Comments? Questions? News about other technologies of hope you’d like to share? Write me at LHG at EN-Genius dot net
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