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OLPC fires back at Intel, children learn nothing

Nothing warms the soul more than watching two organizations try to claim moral high ground while belittling goals and methods of their rival, all in the name of children.

Nick Negroponte, founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child project, came out swinging at Intel on Friday, one day after the chipmaker decided to leave the group.

The OLPC's goal of bringing low-cost technology to children in developing countries apparently conflicts with Intel's goal of running a business. Even though the two agreed to put aside their differences in July, it's pretty clear that they never actually became friends.

"We at OLPC have been disappointed that Intel did not deliver on any of the promises they made when they joined OLPC; while we were hopeful for a positive, collaborative relationship, it never materialized," Negroponte said in a statement distributed by the OLPC on Friday.

Intel cited "fundamental differences" in describing its exit from the group Thursday; this appears to be the classic "creative musical differences" breakup.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of the OLPC OLPC

Quite simply, Negroponte wanted Intel to stop selling its Classmate laptop in regions where he was trying to sell the XO laptop. "Intel continued to disparage the XO laptop in developing nations that had already decided to partner with OLPC (Uruguay and Peru), with countries that were in the midst of choosing a laptop solution (Brazil and Nigeria), and even small and remote places (Mongolia)," Negroponte said.

Intel has never been shy about its desire to sell the Classmate PC as one of many possible products for the developing world, and that seems to have offended Negroponte. "As we said in the past, we view the children as a mission; Intel views them as a market."

But Negroponte also said Intel's version of the XO laptop just wasn't that good. "The best Intel could offer in regards to an "Intel inside" XO laptop was one that would be more expensive and consume more power--exactly the opposite direction of OLPC's stated mandate and vision," Negroponte said.

An Intel representative declined to comment on the cost or power consumption of any chips slated for the XO laptop, which currently uses a Geode processor made by Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices.

And so it goes. It's always heartening to see two organizations disparage each other over who has the more appropriate vision for saving the world through technology--which assumes, of course, that notion is even possible.

Few would argue that it's a bad idea to connect students in impoverished lands to the outside world, but should they use custom laptops designed specifically for their needs, running open-source software and free from the Microsoft monopoly? Should they have access to the same technology that's available at Best Buy, but at a more reasonable price? Would all this time and effort be better spent on technology infrastructure in some of these nations?

Negroponte seems to think that because he's running a nonprofit with a "mission," he's entitled to a lock on the developing world and that the XO laptop is the only thing that can bridge the digital divide. That, of course, is preposterous; competition between firms is what improves products and brings down costs over time, and to expect Intel and other companies to just pass on burgeoning demand for computers in developing countries is pretty naive.

But I agree with Charlie Demerjian over at The Inquirer: the tone of this squabble is beneath Intel. Negroponte's project is well-intentioned, and the XO isn't a terrible product. Sure, he doesn't seem to really understand how to run a business venture, and he seems to have a bit of a messianic complex, but he really is trying to improve the lives of poor children.

The developing world needs more than one laptop. The folks at the OLPC do not have a divine right to sell laptops to poor cities and towns, and Intel isn't winning a lot of PR points by slamming a nonprofit.

And maybe, just maybe, some enterprising engineer in one of those developing countries might actually come up with their own idea for a laptop best suited for the needs of their people.

What are Intel and the OLPC going to do then, belittle the first homegrown laptop designer in Mongolia? Perhaps the best way to help developing countries get in on the technology revolution is to teach them how to design--not merely assemble--their own products, rather than coming to them from lofty perches in Cambridge and Santa Clara saying, "Don't worry, we know best."