36 thoughts on “The Unintended Consequences of OLPC”

  1. Om, not to add more work to your overflowing plate, but I’d love to see search results for “Asus Eee PC” included. I grabbed the Intel-based, 4 GB SSD version that runs Linux on the first day of availability and it’s definitely in the same space as the OLPC and Classmate, although it tends to be more expensive at $399. From my daily usage of it, I suspect Asus will sell a ton of these; they’re own estimate is 3.8m devices in 2008.

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  3. I was torn between ordering an XO (OLPC) or one of those Eee PCs, until I browsed the OLPC site, which was an eye-opener. It wasn’t until that point that I fully realized what they were building.

    The media is completely misrepresenting the XO, although I’m not sure if the OLPC folks have been correcting them, which is too bad.

    Instead of claiming it to be a “$100 laptop”, it should be considered a “fully-functional learning PC”.

    It’s designed completely to be a learning device for children. And from that standpoint, it’s nearly perfect. It’s small, rugged, airtight, simple, and about the same price point as any of the video learning devices sold at Toys ‘r’ Us. I should know, I’ve got two kids and I was looking around in this area.

    Plus, it’s got specially designed software installed for kids as well. Frankly, from the standpoint of a geek, which I am, it’s a very interesting little device. I suspect I’ll be playing with it a lot as well.

    To compare this to the Eee PC or Classmate is apples-and-oranges. Those devices might be a little bit more powerful, and maybe a little more suitable for business travel, but they don’t score anywhere nearly as high if you project them for the target market of the XO… kids.

    So if you are looking for a cheap learning PC for kids, go for the XO. If it’s for yourself, you might be more interested in the more mainstream competition.

    This is similar to the difference between the Wii and the Xbox/PS3. Sure, the latter devices are a LOT more powerful. But which is more fun?

    If people are going to hold the XO upto the same standards as the competing devices for technical prowess, then they should hold the other devices up to the standard set by the XO in the area of ease and suitability for kids.

    My $0.02.

  4. Om, having purchased an OLPC via the give-one, get-one program, and having a 1 year-old myself, a few key things attracted me to the OLPC vs. another computer:

    1. I want to provide my son with a real computer that he can bang up and one that is not a video game or a dumbed down computer. I want him to begin learning and being creative on a computer that can grow with him for the next 3-4 years and then move him into the Apple world.

    2. I want to have an inexpensive computer that is durable…I don’t want to have to worry about water, milk, food getting dumped on my computers or a computer that will cost me…

    3. I want to potentially expand the OLPC usage her in my neighborhood for 1-5 year olds. With the features / functions built-in (mesh network showing other kids in the “neighborhood”, built-in camera, etc.) this can certainly help kids in our own country and is an easier goal to accomplish have integrated devices vs. battling the Mac / PC world, etc…

    4. I want my son to have the ability to create / be part of a global social network with kids around the world. Certainly you can argue there are social network sites out there and that is a valid point. That said, I believe, perhaps naively, that the device itself can have a more focused impact. Most importantly, I believe it can help broaden the view of the world for our kids instead of, like the majority of past generations in the US, having a very much US-centric view of the world. If kids can connect early on with other kids around the world in an easy fashion, the future stands a better chance…not too mention, with the global economy trending the way it is, our kids need to be exploring other areas and realize the US isn’t the only 800 lb gorilla in the room anymore…

  5. I think both OLPC and the Intel Classmate architecture are based on assumptions of a decade ago. I wish they had taken in to account the network aspect and leverage the thin-client aspect of compute/store/network evolution possible today. A one-mini-cloud-per-classroom (Omni-PC?) concept that could provide 10-30 thin-machines and a centralized big-brain (compute+store) per classroom? This architecture would work over the Internet and the central PC machines could be anywhere on the net if they cannot be in the classroom and could leverage Google, Yahoo, Amazon EC-n/Sn services as well.

  6. Speaking of unintended consequences: What about the unintended consequences for the kids? While I wholeheartedly applaud the overall goals of OLPC, there is the potential of doing major damage to young kids around the globe since the default software doesn’t seem to include child-appropriate content filters.


    Millions of kids–without computer-savvy adult guidance–having unfettered access to everything the web has to offer is not something that should be glossed over.

  7. Perhaps this is trite but another aspect is simply the fear that comes with carrying around a two-thousand dollar laptop everyday. I’m a grad student and every time I take my Thinkpad X61 out of the house I can’t help but think that one little slip on a patch of ice and I’ll break a laptop I can’t afford to replace. A two- or three-hundred dollar device on the other hand – if something happens it’d still sting but it wouldn’t be as catastrophic as with a regular laptop.

  8. Love the new site look, Om. The $400 desktop PC in the mid-90’s killed the NetPC. You can get a pretty small Acer laptop for $400 today that can run JS and Flash in the browser without locking up. RIA’s are getting more resource intensive, not less (this is a problem for MID’s). It is beginning to look like the “low-cost VoIP” dilemma. The cost difference is too little to cover the inconvenience.

    Getting full-function MID’s much below $600 will be tough because of packaging and battery costs, but low-end laptop prices are in free-fall, and 45nm will keep them falling for at least a few years more.

  9. Wow, I went away for a day to do some research and I come back with such an amazing array of opinions. Man, I love this conversation and you all have given me some food for thought.

    @ Matt Abrams, what a great comment.

    @ rohit, I think your comments ties in with the earlier post about five cloud computers, that we published over the long holiday break.

    @ Kevin, you ask, and I deliver. Total CCC search interest in recent months.

  10. Here are some the reasons why the Intel Classmate (made by Asus) and Asus Eee are very inferior to the OLPC XO laptop in terms of being used for education:

    • Software, interfaces, design of Classmate/Eee not suited for kids.
    • Power consumption 5-10 times higher then the OLPC XO
    • Battery recharge cycles 4 times less than OLPC XO
    • Wireless is much less usables since it is not Meshed and does not function independantly from the main processor
    • Screen is unusuable in sunlight thus more than half of the worlds school kids the Classmate/Eee is useless cause they do not use indoor lighting but work and study in sunlight
    • Screen is unusuable for reading ebooks
    • Screen is smaller and much more expensive to manufacture
    • Screen backlight is expensive and difficult to repair, while XO backlight is cheap and can be changed by a kid if it breaks
    • OLPC XO uses a much more optimized and simplified hardware platform which is half the price of Classmate and Eee
    • DCON chip which means that the XO laptop can function without the need of using the main CPU when nothing is happening on the screen
    • XO has much better wireless range which is crucial for more than half the worlds population if they want to have Internet at home.

    That’s why I think Intel and Asus should really fully join the OLPC effort instead of marketing their Classmate and Eee as XO alternatives. The Intel ULV processor platform is simply not suited for OLPC. Intel has announced that they are working on a new processor for OLPC called the Diamondville. Intel and Asus should focus on that. Work on the Intel-powered XO computer (which could be ready by April) or the XO-2 (for the second half of next year). Intel and Asus should stop marketing their Classmates and Eee for education purposes.

    Selling Eee commercially (currently out-of-stock at twice the price of OLPC XO) is fine by Asus since it is a great tool for business, but do not try and say that it is better for kids use no matter if its in developped or underdevelopped countries.

  11. Having an ultralight low-cost laptop is a trend that will take off in developed countries, quite apart from the OLPC laptop – the Palm Foleo could well have been this laptop if it had had better marketing.

    The OLPC is an amazing project that has produced huge innovations in mesh WiFi, security (Bitfrost model applying virtualisation to security) and most of all in display technology – it hasn’t got much to do with the trend to lightweight mini-laptops in the developed countries, but it will spin off these innovations into such laptops. It will also help to improve memory and power efficiency in some Linux apps – the older apps are incredibly efficient, but the newer apps need some work. The Linux folks are already doing great stuff with power efficiency but need to keep focusing on this – check the http://lesswatts.org site and read up on Powertop, which tells you which are the top power-wasting apps on your computer.

    @rohit, the point of the OLPC is to be a personal learning tool for a child, which they can take home and use there. Server-based thin computing is a valid model for schools, and companies like Ndiyo do great thin clients that cost very little, but that’s not the point of OLPC.

  12. I’m working in Northern Ghana at the moment and out here schools struggle to get one textbook per child. There are schools lacking basic facilities like toilets and teachers. The “one laptop per child” seems a bit irrelevant here, where the makers claim to be targeting it.

  13. “Tim Little said:
    I’m working in Northern Ghana at the moment and out here schools struggle to get one textbook per child. There are schools lacking basic facilities like toilets and teachers. The “one laptop per child” seems a bit irrelevant here, where the makers claim to be targeting it.”

    That is the point, Tim. The computers:

    A. Do not need to be plugged in — ever.
    B. Are designed to be used outside in harsh environments.
    C. Will have ebook textbook emulation software.
    D. Will automagically network with all other students (and teachers) that they can find in a given area.

    In addition, if anyone in the mesh manages to beg, borrow, or steal an internet connection then evryone in the mesh will have access to all of the information in the world.

  14. This is a little off-topic, but not much, I think. I lived in Brazil during the late 70’s and early 80’s, well outside the big cities. That gave me a good picture of what life was like for a typical child there. What I also saw were bright, talented, artistic young people who could probably do some amazing things with access to the right resources. I applaud efforts like this one, which aim to help kids in developing nations gain access to “new” technologies and tools. Who knows what great thing one of these kids will come up with when they have access to a computer? Many of them may be able to lift themselves out of (relative or actual) poverty by leveraging their computer skills in their country’s (or the world’s) marketplace. I contributed to this program for precisely that reason. Granted, we may also be generating the next wave of Nigerian scammers or porn surfers, but we might also be helping that one kid with the “next big idea” find an audience.

  15. I also find the whole concept of OLPC dubious, along the lines of Tim Little’s comment from Ghana. That being said, I may be wrong and it’s certainly a worthwhile experiment, just one that I’m not interested in contributing to. I’d rather send a $200 donation to something that seems more worthwhile to me. What I don’t get is the OLPC organization’s apparent pathological refusal to just sell the damn things to whoever wants to buy one (which is a lot of people). I don’t mean B1G1. I want to just buy one(like I said, I’d rather donate money elsewhere). So what’s the problem with just selling the damn things for $200. Is it an inventory or manufacturing capacity problem? Are they actually more expensive than is being claimed? You’d think that as more are bought for non-charitable uses, economies of scale would kick in and the things would get cheaper. Something seems fishy.

  16. They should call the Asus Eee “S-C-E,” that is, small, cheap, easy (easy to buy, carry, and operate). S-C-E is the winning combination in consumer electronics.

    How low can you go in PC prices? I would say below $50 in volume production, with S-C-E as the goal.

    Technological historians know that something like this happened once before in transistor radios. Japanese contract manufacturers for American brands introduced their own brands into the US in 1957 (Sony) and had half the market by 1960. Will Chinese contractors like Asus repeat the feat by 2010?

    If history repeats, you will see pocket computers — not “laptops” — sold in places like Walgreen’s for less than $50. There will be MANY brands of Taiwanese (and even Communist China) PCs, just as in the 1950s over 30 Japanese companies made over 75 brands.

    This is commoditization and economic deflation, guys. The OLPC and Eee have opened the barn door.

  17. Chris W:
    My point isn’t that the computers won’t work in the environment but that $100 per student could be spent a great deal better. There are schools in northern Ghana that have no toilet facilities of any kind and many children don’t attend even primary schools (for which the government now pays the fees) because they can’t afford exercise books, pencils or uniform. The attendance at junior and senior level is even lower. For those that do attend there aren’t enough teachers and many of the teachers are unqualified.

    About 40% of the population in Africa subsist on $1 per day and there is high level of malnourishment and medcines are far too expenive for the majority of the population. I predict that the poorest families will do the sensible thing of selling the laptops and using the money to meet some of their more pressing needs. It would be more efficent just to give the $100 directly.

    There are about 9 million Ghanaians below the age of 14 acording to the CIA world fact book. To give each one a $100 lap top would cost $900 million. That would represent nearly 5% of Ghana’s GDP (approx $20Bn). Surely that much money can be spent more effectively?

  18. The $100 laptop can be worth much more than that especially to very poor families such as the ones in Ghana. Just having that laptop with the Internet can bring instantly higher income to the whole family, cause Internet can be used to do business better, to know the value of commodities, to find a job, to save time communicating with trade partners far away instantly. If income grows to $3 per day instead of the $1 per day, then for sure there will be very little incentive to get rid of the laptop. But for sure that requires that the laptop can be human or sun powered and that it does have an Internet connection.

  19. The 45,000 figure in the article was the number of orders in the first 9 days — that’s 90,000 devices.

    I agree with comments above that the point is not to make a cheap knockoff laptop. The OLPC sounds like the first interesting personal computer since the 80s, and that’s why I ordered one.

  20. Tim, I understand what you are saying, but how better could the $100-$200 be spent? Honestly, as we saw with the aid promotions of the 80’s, if you just give them all a bit of money they do better for a while, but then the money is spent. When governments in developing countries get larger aid donations for capital improvements it more often then not ends up going entirely to corruption and mismanagement.

    Then you have the other problems you were mentioning. The kids can’t make it to school. They do not have pens or paper. Their parents have no knowledge of technology. If they do manage the 5 to 10 mile trek to get to a classroom there will often not be a teacher there, and there is an increased risk of endemic disease spreading between the children because there is no sanitation.

    Children have an amazing ability to figure out computers on there own. They won’t have to go to a school to use them. They won’t need paper to use them. They won’t need pens to use them. They will be able to work 10 hours in the fields and still get in 15 minutes of hack time before sleep. There will be some problems with selling them off, of course, but I think that can be minimized somewhat. There are a lot of parents who would consider having educated children valuable ‘if’ they didn’t have to lose the day labor by sending them off to a school house every day.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents, Chris.

  21. Chris,

    You may be right, and I may be a bit too close to things at the moment. Before I came out here I tended to agree with you, but now I’m here I’m a little nervous that all that will happen is that resources will be diverted away from the poorest parts of Africa and the laptops will end up in the wealthier areas. But from what I’ve seen so far (and I’ve only been here 3 months) it is extremely important that Ghana’s economy grow (and Africa’s in general). Perhaps these might help.

    You ask what else $100 could do. I have a friend (another volunteer) who is trying to raise money to get bore holes (i.e. water supply) for schools in one of the poorest regions of Ghana. $100 would definitely go towards helping a whole school benefit:


    p.s. I doubled the GDP of Ghana, it’s only $10bn. For interest the education budget is about $100Million, i.e. less than $15 per child per year.

  22. This comment is directed specifically at Tim Little. Tim, as a teacher in Northern Ghana you must be aware of the far reaching reforms in educational curriculum and infrastructure that Ghana is undergoing now. Central to these reforms is the role and adaptation of Science and Information/Communication Technology in other words putting in place the building blocks to provide a modern, adaptive and competitive education system that empowers Ghanaian children and youth to participate meaningfully and productively in a modern society and global economy. The OLPC project has been endorsed fully by John Kuffour the President, as an essential tool in implementing many of these reforms and the Ministries of Finance and Education have collaborated to get the funding available to make the initial investments.

    My point, the government is walking and chewing gum at the same time. Yes there are daunting challenges in terms of social and material well being but the country cannot be confined to linear thinking…solve A, then B then C…….they are maximizing all opportunities to tackle numerous challenges at the same time including accelerating the country in to a modern information society so that they can reinvent the wheel in tackling many problems. Giving $100 for a borehole has LIMITED multiplier effects in the wider society and I don’t say that to be dismissive. Giving a laptop to every Standard I pupil especially in Northern Ghana coupled with other social and infrastructure investments PLUS focused public policy will transform the lives of communities.

  23. Sijui, I am aware of some of the reforms, although I’m not actually a teacher – I’m a IT volunteer with an NGO for a year. I’m not certain about my response to OLPC is. Before I came out I was vaguely in favour. Now I’m here I’m not convinced it is a the best thing to do. I will respond more fully when I have time to read the speech and a little more widely on the issue generally.

    I assume you are Ghanaian yourself. Do you live or come from any of the 3 northern regions?

  24. Sijui,

    I’m afraid that I couldn’t get the link working, but Kufuor wouldn’t be the first politician to see the benefit of being associated with a high profile education project in election year. To my knowledge no actual government money has actually been pledged yet.

    I’d like to be convinced by the OLPC project but I can’t help thinking it’s another gimmick that may well be diverting resources from more useful things. Governments in Africa have very limited budgets. Any money spent on a project like OLPC will be taken from someone else’s slice of the pie.

    If you want to kick start IT look at India (who have rejected OLPC btw). They focused on higher education, concentrating on producing technology and engineering graduates. Alternatively use a charity like Computer Aid to ship refurbished computers at for a lot less $200. If it’s education you’re interested in then water aid is dealing with some of the basic issues and VSO sends experienced teachers to poor countries to supplement and train local teachers and I know from personal experience that they do excellent work. Charities like Action Aid and Oxfam work in communities to campaign and organise on education issues.

    Overall if countries like Ghana can get these toys without diverting funds from other things then I’m all for it. If the only way you are going to contribute to the developing world is by buying an XO box then please do that. If I didn’t believe that IT has a role I wouldn’t have left a well paid job to work here in Ghana, I just want to work out what the most effective way is.

    Hopefully I’ll write my thoughts up more fully on my own blog (I think you can click on the little picture by my name to get to it).

    I wonder what this Om Malik’s (blog’s ownersO thought’s are. The original article wasn’t really about the implications of OLPC on the developing world.

  25. Thanks Tim for engaging me on this. I agree that Ghana should observe its peers in other parts of the world in terms of developing a coherent policy that incorporates many of such initiatives within its wider social and economic agenda, I see the present government doing that and am cautiously optimistic that they will find a sustainable domestic source of revenue to finance this investment. Their track record so far in both Communication, Technology and Education investments does not give me cause to doubt them.

    Regarding your other points, I have a completely different perspective from yours. I don’t believe the issue with governments like Ghana is diverting sources of funding away from other priorities, such as financing OLPC with funding that would otherwise go to clean water or hospitals……the issue is prioritizing public policy that will yield both economic and social dividends and then financing it. Or put simply financing social investments that are self sustaining because there are economic incentives inherent in them beyond just a social good. In the case of the OLPC it obviously fits very well in to both a wider social and economic agenda and if executed well can achieve those objectives simultaneously, and so rightfully financing it should take greater precedence to other standalone social investments. I also like the fact that it is not a freebie like many other well meaning interventions, it motivates governments to make the important social investment trade offs that all governments must confront and it supports the local economy through assembly and manufacture of replacement/new hardware plus development of local software content in addition to support services such as internet connectivity etc.

    Unfortunately too often governments in this part of the world lack the self confidence to define and execute that public policy on their own terms, and get distracted by external advice and prescriptions which coincidentally is also tied to resources that are counter-productive or outright stifle that domestic policy development.

    I particulalry like OLPC for Third World countries like Ghana because at its core is social entrepreneurship that transfers not only a social good but also the means for innovation and economic creativity.

  26. Sijui,

    Actually I agree that the government of Ghana (and others) should spend some money imaginatively, I’m just not convinced that the OLPC will actually deliver the benefits it promises. Is there any sound academic research that backs up the educational value of such devices or is the developing world being yet again used as a laboratory for the developed?

    p.s. I’ve posted a longer bit on OLPC on my personal blog.

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