One Laptop Project: Time for a Priority Check


I've kept an eye on the One Laptop Per Child project since its inception, and I've been tempted to comment on its virtues since Nicholas Negroponte began the push to create sub-$100 laptops to distribute to children in Third World economies.


The latest news on the project -- that Negroponte is irked with Intel for launching a $200 system to compete with his own AMD-based machine, which now carries a $170 price tag -- really shouldn't surprise anyone. Certainly, as Negroponte contends, Intel is not going to let AMD do anything without answering. Government contracts, even for sub-$200 mobile devices, are just too enticing to pass up for a big vendor.


I don't know whether to think Negroponte's reaction is based purely on ego, as blogger Om Malik suggests:

...since this seems to be a mission of charity (and not a play for Nobel Peace Prize), Negroponte should be happy that others are willing to follow his lead, and get more of these frankendevices into the hands of more and more kids.

I'm more inclined to believe that any incursion of the free market into what has been essentially a Socialist test-bed project from the start would just gall the guy who started it, on an intellectual level if nothing else.


That's understandable, I suppose, but it's also pretty much how the free market works. People grow on your ideas. Unless you want to go to the dark side and get something as loathsome as a patent -- not that you could patent the idea of a really cheap laptop -- folks are going to compete with you using stuff that looks pretty much like your own stuff.


I've wondered from the start why Negroponte and others interested in bringing technology to kids who can't otherwise afford it haven't launched a program by which they sell their sub-$200 devices to schools in the U.S., Britain and other G8 economies for, say, $325, and apply the excess -- I won't say "profit" -- toward getting the devices into the hands of Third World kids. Lord knows all schools, including those in the richest countries, would jump at the chance to put a capable computing device into the hands of students at that price point. And educators would embrace the social upside of such a program.


The free market doesn't always have to be evil. Toyota actually does charge money for the hybrid Prius.


This could ultimately extend to the consumer market, as well -- that crank-powered battery sounds pretty cool.


Negroponte finally said last month that he would consider selling the machines to U.S. schools at a higher price point, but his statement didn't make it clear whether this shift would specifically benefit Third World kids. It could offset the cost to those governments (good), it could simply help OLPC make its initial order volume to move into production this September (OK), or it could just just make AMD and other providers a little happier (not so bad, but not noble).


In reading up on the latest OLPC spat -- fueled by a 60 Minutes report this weekend -- I am increasingly disenchanted by the basic assumption that the biggest problem faced by kids in the Third World is poor access to the Internet. It's fashionable -- and admittedly hopeful -- to think that knowledge is the key to changing the world. History shows that clean water and food are probably a little more critical, at least in setting a baseline where learning can take place.


Even in the richest countries, including the U.S., educators will tell you that nutrition programs are more critical than technology access in educating the poorest kids.


Stan Beer at ITWire notes today that OLPC laptops will be given to kids in economies where it's likely they will be stolen or sold on the black market for food and other essentials. It's not evil -- it's just desperate.


It seems to me that instead of griping about Intel, Negroponte could put market pressure on the giant -- and his own initiative -- to use the free market to not only provide kids with laptops, but also secure learning centers at their schools where they can share the machines without fear of theft, by others or their own families.

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