Culture

One Laptop Per Child: An idea whose time has come, just not for Negroponte

Negroponte's idea for One Laptop Per Child seems to be gaining currency, even if his particular organization isn't the one shipping the PCs.

Nicholas Negroponte had the best of intentions. Unfortunately, when those intentions clash with the profit motives of private vendors, private industry has become quite aggressive, as the Wall Street Journal reports. The One Laptop Per Child project has sold nowhere near its stated goal of 150 million laptops shipped by the end of 2008.

As is often the case, the person with the idea is not necessarily the right person to capitalize on it:

Mr. Negroponte's ambitious plan has been derailed, in part, by the power of his idea. For-profit companies threatened by the projected $100 price tag set off at a sprint to develop their own dirt-cheap machines, plunging Mr. Negroponte into unexpected competition against well-known brands such as Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system.

A version of Mr. Negroponte's vision is starting to come true. Impoverished countries are indeed snapping up cheap laptops for their schoolchildren -- just not anywhere near as many of his as he expected. They now have several cut-price models to choose from, raising the possibility that One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, will end up as a niche player. Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project sought to get $100 laptops into the hands of millions of the world's poorest schoolchildren. But for-profit versions of the laptop are competing fiercely in the developing world.

"I'm not good at selling laptops," Mr. Negroponte has told colleagues. "I'm good at selling ideas."

The good news, of course, is that developing nations win as competition ramps up, even if One Laptop Per Child isn't the organization ultimately selling the laptops.

The bad news, however, will be if these vendors use their cheap laptops to entrench themselves in developing markets, such that choice is dampened for decades. This is where open source needs to flex its political clout and stress that price is not the only consideration for countries looking to adopt technology for their children. Freedom should also be a critical factor. This means open source.