I was glad to hear that the One Laptop Per Child project had extended its program to let consumers purchase one of the nifty devices while donating a second one to a child in a developing country.
Mostly, I was glad to see that the program was actually getting some traction -- if my math is right, 45,000 orders in just nine days constitutes about 15 percent of the current production run for the devices. Secondly, I was relieved to see that I still had time to put in my own order, as promised (the projects that have caused me to be so negligent about posting to this blog recently also blanked me on my XO pledge -- for shame).
So, I was feeling good about the whole situation -- until I read another misguided piece, at of all places The Wall Street Journal, about how wicked capitalism has undermined Nicholas Negroponte's chaste vision.
Stop, please. Just stop.
I have no doubt that Professor Negroponte's goals with OLPC are positive, even if I tend to agree with those who think kids in impoverished countries might need food and clean water more than technology.
But here's a news flash for you: If you promise a product to a buyer at $100, and then come back with an actual price almost double that, your customers are going to look at other options, no matter how righteously non-profit you are. And before you start wailing about how that great Satan Intel is at the root of all this, even the WSJ apology notes that much of the XO's price creep has been due to needed power and processing improvements over the initial spec.
In my wicked capitalist world, that's a bait and switch. I'll assume it was honest optimism on the part of the OLPC. As always, the Intel Classmate laptop -- which unquestionably would not exist, at least not this soon, if not for Negroponte -- is cited as the main undoing of the OLPC project. And it's by no means dead in the water. WSJ reports that competition with Intel is a daily event (surprise), and goes on to spell out this gem:
At a meeting this month in Cambridge, Mass., with representatives of Macedonia's government, Mr. Negroponte balked at authorizing a pilot project there after learning that officials also were considering testing the Classmate. He told them he didn't want to participate in a "bake-off."
I can't really add anything here. Either this will convince you that Negroponte is a noble warrior or completely out of touch with reality. I, obviously, lean toward the latter.
Aside from my basic capitalistic bent, I can certainly see why a country might want to take a look at a PC that will help kids learn an operating system (either Windows or a standard Linux UI) that they may end up using later in life. The idea of the XO machine's kid-intuitive interface sounds great, but children in the United States have no trouble picking up standard UIs -- the idea that kids in developing countries can't do the same seems odd to me, or at least smacks of an overall ethic of using their real need to test social and academic theory. Again, stop it.
So, congrats to Negroponte for accelerating the market toward offering affordable computing devices to the emerging world. That's a serious accomplishment, as many bloggers -- and perhaps even Negroponte, based on comments in the WSJ piece -- now understand. Hopefully, wicked corporations will now extend this market shift to adults in these emerging markets, so they can expand their economies and improve the overall quality of life. Stuff like food and clean water.