PC Development for the Developing World

Examining the OLPC project: the cause, the controversy, and – above all – the competition.

By now, you've probably heard of the XO Laptop from One Laptop per Child (OLPC). The brainchild of Nicholas P. Negroponte, veteran technology investor and co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, this kid-friendly, $200 open source machine was designed to break down the digital divide separating the developed and developing worlds. But in trying to bring a modern computing architecture to low-income children, Mr. Negroponte has set off a firestorm of controversy – one that cuts directly to our most fundamental ideas around education, philanthropy, and the increasingly hazy divide between private enterprise and non-profit entities. It also raises some uncomfortable, but timely questions around what we hope to accomplish in the developing world – and what's in it for us.

The first prototype of the XO laptop was unveiled at the 2005 World Summit on Information Technology by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. “These robust and versatile machines will enable kids to become more active in their own learning," said Mr. Annan. The laptop incorporated a number of clever innovations, including a greener, longer-life battery, tablet orientation, peer-to-peer networking, and a screen that could be read in broad daylight. The machine was tentatively embraced by the blogosphere, with Engadget's Paul Miller gushing, “The incredible hype behind the OLPC project only seems to be building — who are we to stand in its way?"

As it happens, a number of obstacles would present themselves. Microsoft and Intel both made disparaging comments about the XO immediately upon its disclosure. Intel's main rival, Advanced Micro Devices, had manufactured the chipset for the XO, and its software, a variant of UNIX, has been the ire of Microsoft for decades. Both companies seemed to regard OLPC as a competitive threat. While the developing world has never been a cash cow for either company, the idea of indoctrinating a whole generation of students with open-source software and AMD chips represented a new potential threat to business. “Microsoft is betting that at least some of the kids from developing nations will turn into buyers . . . later," says Roger Kay, president of research firm Endpoint Technologies Associates. “The theory is that if you get them young, you can keep them for life."

Thus was born the Intel Classmate, first demonstrated in May 2006, a meager laptop with a smaller screen and fewer innovations than the XO, but a native ability to run Windows software. A year later, Microsoft announced its "Unlimited Potential" program, which would distribute $3 copies of Windows and Office to students in developing nations. It was this killer combination of low-cost hardware (the Classmate retails for around $300) and almost-free software that positioned Intel’s machine as a superior alternative to the XO.

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