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Summary:

However great an idea it might have seemed when it was first conceived, the One Laptop Per Child project has never been something I’ve been able to wrap my head around. I’ve always felt, despite the backers’ good intentions, that it was being shoved down the […]

However great an idea it might have seemed when it was first conceived, the One Laptop Per Child project has never been something I’ve been able to wrap my head around. I’ve always felt, despite the backers’ good intentions, that it was being shoved down the throats of emerging economies with more dire needs, such as food, clean water and schools. I was dismissed as a naysayer by many, mostly for not grokking how computing can revolutionize nations. But I haven’t changed my mind. This project comes off like a vanity play for the elite, who perhaps can’t grok the meaning of living within minimal means.

That personal opinion aside, OLPC has also had its share of teething problems, as we have chronicled time and again. First it was met with strong opposition from folks like Intel, who went on to create their own rival platforms, mostly to disrupt the whole OLPC movement. At the same time, Moore’s Law brought about the rise of low-cost Internet devices like the ASUS EEE PC, which I think are only going to get cheaper as time goes by.

The biggest blows, however, are proving to be self-inflicted. Today OStatic notes that OLPC’s Open Sugar platform is going to be adopted for new hardware platforms by Sugar Labs, the new effort of OLPC former president Walter Bender and one where he is joined by many of the core Sugar developers.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s a link between Bender’s efforts at Sugar Labs and yesterday’s announcement that Windows XP is going to be available on OLPC machines and that Sugar will be ported over to Windows. (Yeah, right…not with most of the people off doing Sugar Labs.) The availability of Windows XP is different from what the people behind OLPC had set out to do — build a truly open, low-cost connected computing device for kids around the world. The press materials don’t make it clear how much Microsoft is going to pocket.

There are some who might point to the low-cost hardware — $180 a pop — as reason for people to buy OLPCs for kids in emerging economies, but how will these machines compete with low-end computers and Internet devices that will run using Intel’s Atom devices?

I think this is the end of OLPC as we know it, even though I’m sure that almost all of you would disagree with me.

Bonus Reading:

* What you can learn from the sad state of OLPC.
* The unintended consequences of OLPC

  1. You are totally right, Om, about the deal with Microsoft capping the end of OLPC, although I think the other forces you point out, such as the single-minded attitude of technology being able to cure problems deriving from a complex blend of cultural, economic, geographical and political issues, all combined to doom OLPC from the start.

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  2. I always wondered if anybody from OLPC has kept reading up on cognitive science, not what we thought 10 years ago but current papers.
    Our son who is 7. Who got a WII, DS and a Notebook has only limited time, which includes TV to play/watch them. And I have run a few CS research projects/organizations. I also believe anybody who believes the brain works like a boolean system, i.e. blindly follow rules or uses binary logic, is dumber then I think anybody should be. In other words training kids to learn to think like that, is just plain stupid and very limiting for their future.
    As a communication device to acquire new information today’s internet connected computers are ok, but as a standalone working or learning system they are just horrible. But that requires only a browser.
    Now before you jump all over me. Simple questions. The concept of except is based on not or no in the brain? In other words if you teach the wrong base concepts at early age, kids will have a hard time to learn more advanced concepts as they grow older. And yes we can mathematically proof that.

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  3. “shoved down the throats of emerging economies with more dire needs, such as food, clean water and schools” Several people working on OLPC have explained to me that countries are not uniform. They have groups that need the food and water and other groups where these needs are satisfied. OPLCs go to people where their basic needs have already been taken care of. Other agencies (UN, etc) are addressing the food/water/schools issue.

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  4. You are again totally wrong. And I think most articles about the OLPC are basically FUD.

    > The availability of Windows XP is different from what the people
    > behind OLPC had set out to do — build a truly open, low-cost connected
    > computing device for kids around the world.

    The opposite, the compatibillity with Windows XP underlines that the OLPC XO-1 is an open X86 project platform on which you may run whatever X86 based OS you want. Be it any type of Linux you like (OLPC just happen to have been optimizing a version of Fedora called Sugar), Microsoft had 40 people working for two years to optimize Windows XP for the OLPC XO-1 hardware, and if Steve Jobs wanted it, he could have customized a version of OSX for it.

    OLPC is open so anyone can make an OS for it. That is the definition of an open platform.

    > There are some who might point to the low-cost hardware — $180 a pop —
    > as reason for people to buy OLPCs for kids in emerging economies, but
    > how will these machines compete with low-end computers and Internet
    > devices that will run using Intel’s Atom devices?

    Intel Atom is most likely NOT going to be any cheaper then the Intel ULV based laptops. It would be cool if Intel lowered the price of Atom laptops, but for now there has been NO Intel Atom based laptops announced at any price near the $180 of the OLPC XO-1.

    Atom is supposed to be fanless, so it should be cheaper. But nobody knows the price yet.

    Anyways saying OLPC XO-1 AMD Geode based laptop is dead just because Intel comes with their own fanless chip (that probably doesn’t perform specially better then AMD Geode), well that is plain idiotic, sorry to say. It’s like saying all AMD computers are dead cause Intel also does processors. So now the market isn’t large enough for several processors?

    I’m sure that the next fanless AMD is going to be even cheaper and better performing and consuming lower power then the Intel Atom chip actually. And the next generation of the OLPC laptop is most probably going to be based on an ARM based processor such as one from Marvell, ARM is much cheaper, much lighter, much lower power consumption, much better optimized.

    Your argument about food and water being more important than information and education is also stupid. It’s like saying that roads are more important than airplanes, it just doesn’t make any sense to compare things like that. People need food, water and they also need information and education (brought through laptops and the Internet for example).

    Sorry I call you stupid several times in this comment, but I’m too tired to formulate this comment any better.

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  5. Absolutely correct. Kids need education, not laptops (or ipods or other tech-toys).

    Case in point: we fled California public schools in the mid-90’s and returned to Massachusetts. California suburban schools, flush with tech spending, were loaded with the latest PC’s of the time– and full of struggling semi-literate kids caught in dumbed-down curriculua and politicized pedagogies thanks to the agenda-wielding airheads running and teaching in the schools there. In contrast, Massachusettes was in a return-to-basics mode with no technology in the classrooms other than an occasional VCR, but plenty of emphasis on academic fundamentals. It was a wake-up call for our kids and a challenge, but ultimately their grades soared along with their abilities.

    Send them books and good, committed teachers. Send the cheap laptops to the recycling centers. That is, if it’s the kids you care about and not just your own need to feel good.

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  6. Arguing against the effectiveness of computers and the Internet in terms of improving people’s lives is pretty moot. It’s well documented that computers and the internet radically improve people’s opportunities, especially when children have access to computers it gives them an unlimitted amount of opportunities that you don’t get out of crappy old books and stupid teachers.

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  7. @ Charbax
    Relax, run 20 miles take a deep breath. Nobody is taken your deep believe of technology away. Some of us just have a different religion.

    But maybe something to think about.
    Why do we teach?

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  8. Sigfried Trent Saturday, May 17, 2008

    Re: Teachers and books instead of laptops

    Well, teachers I can agree with. A good mentor or teacher is worth a lot. Personal interaction in life pretty much trumps everything else, but a teacher won’t nessesarily have the time to interact one on one with the average student

    Books are nothing special. One 2 pound laptom can contain 10000 books, and give access to millions of them, indexed, searchable, etc… It can also give you access to millions of teachers, from PHD professors, to poets, to average people from other cultures.

    The internet is the worlds greatest library, university and nightclub all rolled into one entity. It takes some skill and wisdom to navigate but it has made us all much more powrfull and potentialy knowledgable than ever before. Putting that power in the hands of a near powerless child is quite a gift.

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  9. @ Sigfried
    “The internet is the worlds greatest library, university and nightclub all rolled into one entity. It takes some skill and wisdom to navigate but it has made us all much more powrfull and potentialy knowledgable than ever before.”

    But that requires a “mature” brain. An indexed dump of data doesn’t do you any good in a brain which is in large still immature.

    Something to ponder:
    When do we start learning from negative feedback?

    We now have mathematical models which show that you have to reach some maturity in brain development to learn consciousness from negative feedback. The sad part here is you can shake an infant to death and it will not stop crying because it can’t learn from the negative feedback it’s getting. Just a very sad example .

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  10. I used to be vaguely in favour of the OLPC project, and I’m still sure that it is well meaning and could be useful. My problem is that in order to get one of these devices into the hands of every child in Ghana, where I’m working for a year, it would cost $1,890,000,000 or nearly 20% of the countries entire GDP. If the entire education budget of $100 Million were spent on the devices it would only buy enough for about $500,000 students, or 5% of the children below 18. And Ghana is richer than most of its neighbours.

    One laptop per child is a nice but unachievable fantasy. One laptop per school might be achievable. One textbook per child would be great. I’ve been out to some of the poorest schools in one of the Ghana and seeing them takes the discussion out of the abstract and makes it very real. Whatever the educational or technological merits of OLPC it seems an exorbitantly expensive way to tackle some very real problems in a country that can only afford to spend less than $10 per student per year.

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