TECH TALK: Computing for the Next Billion: OLPC (Part 3)

There has been plenty of criticism about the project ranging from the inadequacy of the machines to the very appropriateness of giving kids in developing countries computers.

Atanu Dey wrote on his blog in November 2005:

I know that one should not ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained as stupidity. Not everyone involved in the laptop for every child is motivated by greed; some are motivated by a zeal that comes from an inability to figure out what the problem is and how it can be most effectively solved. The operative word is effectively. You can always use a cannon where a fly-swatter is sufficient. But for the cost of a cannon, you can get a million fly-swatters which will be more effective than one cannon. Cannons are more impressive then fly-swatters, however, and that may explain their fascination with some people.

A blackboard and chalk is not as sexy as a laptop. In fact, a TV and a media player is pretty much all the hardware that you need to provide basic education to a village full of children. That hardware (and some free software) would cost all of $200 a year, and if you pay about $2000 a year as salaries to a couple of village school teachers, you can educate a 100 kids for about $20 per child per year. Compare that to just buying $100 laptops for each kid.

I am confident that the One Laptop Per Child will have the effect which is the educational equivalent of the nutritional disaster that imported formula has had on the poor parts of the world.

Yes, they do kill babies in search of profits. And yes, they will not care that millions of children will be denied primary education because they are focused on the profits to be made from selling laptops.

Not surprising, both Intel and Microsoft have been critical of the project.

Yahoo News had comments by the former Intel CEO, Criag Barrett in a story in December 2005 (via my blog):

“Mr. Negroponte has called it a $100 laptop — I think a more realistic title should be ‘the $100 gadget’,” Barrett, chairman of the world’s largest chip maker, told a press conference in Sri Lanka. “The problem is that gadgets have not been successful.”

Barrett said similar schemes in the past elsewhere in the world had failed and users would not be satisfied with the new machine’s limited range of programs.
“It turns out what people are looking for is something is something that has the full functionality of a PC,” he said. “Reprogrammable to run all the applications of a grown up PC… not dependent on servers in the sky to deliver content and capability to them, not dependent for hand cranks for power.”

Kevin Maney wrote about Bill Gates objections and his alternative in January 2006:

Gates, with as much respect as he ever musters for something he thinks is dumb, said it was a really bad idea. He says it would be more effective to disseminate Internet-enabled cellphones to those regions.

Cellphones are cheap, use little power and are already made by dozens of companies. A single cell tower could connect a whole town. Cellphones have Web browsers and text messaging and e-mail and are stable, tested technology. They’re spreading quickly in a lot of the developing world.

So, to paraphrase Gates, why start from scratch? Why rely on a product that’s never been mass-produced and could have more bugs than a rain forest? If the U.N. and governments of nations such as Egypt and Nigeria want to get technology into poor villagers’ hands quickly, why not focus on cellphones?

So, given what they are saying, what are Intel and Microsoft doing in emerging markets?

Next Week: Computing for the Next Billion (continued)

TECH TALK Computing for the Next Billion+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.