What’s up, OLPC?

At the intersection of high-tech gadgets and public spending on education in poor countries lies XO, the machine from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project led by Nicholas Negroponte. I have been a critic of the program right from the start. I have argued before that the idea of providing one laptop per child is well and good if money were no object. Unfortunately, in resource-strapped economies such as India, the opportunity cost of providing school children with laptops is prohibitive.

(Previous posts on the OLPC are here. See particularly, “The Formula for Milking the Digital Divide” from Nov 2005, and “OLPC: Rest in Peace” from July 2006.)

A recent article “One Laptop Per Child: What went wrong” by Jon Evans writing for The Walrus, makes interesting reading. Jon is not a fan of the OLPC and says that “it was a bad idea to begin with” and that “the XO laptop is a piece of crap.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has already lapped them. My Acer Aspire One netbook is faster, has more memory, a better screen and keyboard, connects to encrypted Wi-Fi networks, renders Wikipedia correctly, and has a user-friendly interface with many useful applications. There’s no comparison: it’s miles better, for a comparable price. As far as I can tell, the OLPC team so wanted to be revolutionaries that they insisted on reinventing everything at once, and as a result, failed everywhere. (Although to be fair they did inadvertently spur the growth of the netbook market that has since entirely overtaken them.)

But that hardly even matters, because the whole idea of distributing laptops to poor children was completely misguided to begin with. Did the OLPC braintrust think they were bringing modern technology to the Third World? They were years too late; it’s already there, in the form of the not-so-humble-any-more cell phone.

Jon says that what Negroponte should have done is to give one smartphone to every child. I don’t agree with Jon on that: phones are only marginally useful for educational purposes. I think laptops are much more useful. It is not the utility of laptops that I question; I question the cost at which that utility is delivered.

The OLPC team responded with “What Went Wrong with the Walrus’ OLPC Review“. Cory Doctorow is quoted in there —

I believe that the world’s poor will derive lasting, meaningful benefit from widespread access to technology and networks. And I believe that laptop computers will eventually find their way into the hands of practically every child in the developing world, even if the OLPC project shuts its doors tomorrow.

The OLPC project is in trouble. It laid off half its staff earlier this month and cut the salaries of the remaining 32 people. However it turns out for the OLPC project eventually, the world has gained from the learnings that the project provided. Part of the price for the lessons will no doubt be paid by the people of some poor countries whose governments have bought the XO for some of their children. That’s just the way it is.

(Hat tip: Naman for the link to Jon’s article.)

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