Controversy Swirls around OLPC Project

Intel sees the light; Dell doesn't get it.

When a project sets out not only to change the world but also to change the future of computing, its sure to be at the center of lots of attention and not a little bit of controversy. This has definitely been the case for the One Laptop Per Child project, which has gained attention both for the right reasons (its humanitarian goals and the groundbreaking technologies its introducing) and for the wrong reasons (fixation on product pricing and assumptions about capabilities).

In May, the OLPC and its founder, MIT whiz Nicholas Negroponte, were the subject of a segment on the television news magazine "60 Minutes." The segment focused on the OLPCs XO laptop (more commonly although not completely accurately known as the $100 laptop) and the organizations goal—to bring inexpensive computing resources to children in the developing world. However, much of the attention focused on a war of words between Negroponte and Intel Chairman of the Board Craig Barrett.

In one of the most revealing parts of the segment, Negroponte showed marketing materials that Intel had distributed to Nigeria that were highly critical of the XO laptop in comparison with Intels similarly focused Classmate PC.

Barrett then seemed to show that he cant tell the difference between humanitarian effort and business as usual when he confirmed the existence of the documents, saying, "Someone at Intel was comparing the Classmate PC with another device being offered in the marketplace. Thats the way our business works."

However, it now appears that Intel has realized that its better policy (and better public relations) to work with projects like the OLPC rather than against them. In fact, on July 13 it was announced that Intel is joining the board of the OLPC and will be supporting its efforts to spread low-cost computing to children.

With this news, it seemed as if the OLPC had proved its intentions and could finally get on with deploying its XO laptops in developing countries. However, right about the same time, another titan of old-school computing decided to take a few shots at the OLPC and the low-cost XO.

At the Dell/National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Excellence Awards, Michael Dell spoke about the XO laptop during a question-and-answer session. He said that the laptop will be too underpowered to be of any use to children and wont be able to handle necessary computing tasks. "The issue is not so much what does it cost, but what does it do," Dell said.

Its understandable that Dell might not totally grasp how most people actually use computers. After all, the companys whole business model is based on selling increasingly powerful computers every year. However, if he got out more in the real world, he would see that a large number of people and businesses are being very productive and getting quite a bit done using computers that are 5 or more years old.

But what is even clearer is that Dell has not had a chance to take a good look at the current state of the XO laptop.

I recently had just that opportunity when I visited the OLPC offices in Cambridge, Mass., and took a deep dive into the XO system, which is very close to its final release state.

Its true that if you look only at the posted specifications of the XO, you might come to the conclusion that the laptop is underpowered. (It comes with a midrange AMD processor; 256MB of RAM; and a small, flash-based drive.) However, looking beyond straight specs, I saw a system that is anything but underpowered and incapable. Quite the opposite: The XO is one of the most powerful systems Ive seen in years.

From its revolutionary display technology (which is readable even in bright sunlight) to its supergreen power management and provision capabilities to its wireless mesh capabilities that allow an entire village of children to connect, the XO will have a massive impact on the lives of the children who use it.

It will also influence the future of laptop technology, bringing on a new wave of more efficient and capable mobile systems.

Even more surprising were some of the groundbreaking features found in the Linux-based Sugar software that runs on the XO laptop. While some of the programs in Sugar are simplified versions of standard desktop tools such as word processors, much of the software in Sugar is as innovative as the hardware on the XO, including one of the best-implemented collaboration environments Ive ever seen.

Hopefully, Dells comments were based solely on ignorance of the capabilities of the XO. Computer makers shouldnt see the XO as a toy or, worse, as a competitor to their own systems. Instead, they should welcome it as an innovation freed from the often-stifling bureaucracy of commercial vendors, one that will energize a mainly stagnant laptop technology market.

For more details on the capabilities, features and innovations in the XO laptop, check out the analysis Ill be posting at eWeeks Emerging Technology site ( There, you will also find information from interviews with OLPC President Walter Bender and OLPC Chief Technology Officer Mary Lou Jepsen, as well as a podcast from these interviews.

And, of course, Ill be posting lots of photos of the XO and screenshots of Sugar.


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