I've been critical of the OLPC project in the past but in the end I've tried to keep an open mind. But this article just set me off to the point where I had to call them on the sheer dishonesty of it all.
From the very first sentence the sheer hero worship that the author was piling on the OLPC project was almost hard to believe...
At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, supreme prophet of digital connectivity, revealed a strange tent-like object.
Clearly someone had been drinking the Kool-Aide. Lets take another quote from a few paragraphs down...
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the company formed to run the project, is still driven by the same old idealism, geekery and technical brilliance. But Negroponte and his young staff are older and wiser.
But I was still willing to give this the benefit of the doubt. But when I got to the following excerpt I really started getting angry...
Microsoft’s Gates said, “Jeez, get a decent computer…” and then went around trashing Negroponte’s earnestly well-meaning machine.
“He said that sort of thing privately to people I knew,” says Negroponte. “There was a fair amount of that. I was annoyed enough to say so, and he apologised for it – a lot of good that did
Gates’s reaction was especially tasteless. Apart from being – like, apparently, everybody else rich, powerful or famous – an old friend of Negroponte, he is the greatest philanthropist in the world. But even though he’s stepped down as the head of Microsoft, he remains almost paranoiacally defensive of Windows.
My feeling of anger intensified once I got to here...
Negroponte then went out to sell the machine. Connected as he is, he decided to use a top-down approach. He sold straight to governments and heads of state. It seemed to work like a charm. As if by magic, he conjured up promises to buy millions of laptops from Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, Thailand, Pakistan and Libya. It was, in publicity terms, a brilliant coup. From nowhere this not-yet-existing machine seemed to be conquering the world. The press lapped it up. Negroponte was on a roll.
Unfortunately, none of the orders materialised. “He would go from prime-minister meeting to president-of-country meeting and that was his sales model,” says Rebecca Gonzales of AMD, who now advises OLPC. “And it didn’t work, absolutely not. As we have learnt in the business world, just because you have a handshake from the president or the prime minister, it doesn’t mean you have an order.”
“There’s nothing I regret about this strategy,” he says. “It created enough hype and pictures of Nicholas shaking hands with heads of state that, back in Taiwan where 250 engineers were working on it, people felt part of something.”
OK, that's all for the quotes and at this point some of you are probably wondering "Tom, why does this make you angry?"
I'm angry because It's easy to look like you're doing good. Make a cheap laptop and then negotiate with heads of Government who are largely looking for statistics to placate their constituency ("We bought 5,000 new laptops for the kids of our country") and you look like a saint even if you aren't actually doing any good for the kids themselves (look at the last quote where he actually boasts about accomplishing nothing because it got his project attention).
It is hard to actually do good. To actually do good you have to look at the needs of the kids you are trying to help and build a project based on those needs, not on an ideal and a price point.
The Gates quote above is absolutely right, the OLPC is a poor excuse for a computer and it was absolutely not tasteless for him to point that out. The OLPC project is trying to foist second rate computers that look like they came out of the 1980s onto kids in poor countries so they can make themselves feel good.
I've posted screen shots of the OLPC's actual interface throughout my entry so you can get an idea of the "technical marvel" that is the OLPC (whose official name is XO-1 just for the record).
The truth is that the OLPC is filthy with the attitude of ideas over substance. Stick the poor kids with anything that looks like a PC and then pat yourself on the back and go on your way.
Just because kids are poor does not give you the right to use them as your guinea pig for a pet project. It certainly doesn't give you the right to do so and then pat yourself on the back for having done it.
If you really want to bring the third world into the computer age you need to do it with PCs that resemble the ones that everyone else in the world is using. I'm not saying Windows and Intel but certainly something that resembles it like KDE or GNome and AMD.
(For the record, Microsoft donates millions of dollars worth of software to these types of projects so they could use Windows if they wanted I'm just making the point that they don't have to abandon Linux and their Open Source Principles to make a decent PC)
This all is an embarrassment in my opinion and a good example of how we don't hold non-profits accountable for their actions. Beyond that It makes my job and the jobs of everyone trying to make a legitimate difference for kids all the harder by creating a false expectation that there's a usable PC out there for $100 which there simply isn't.
Addendum: I didn't push this point in the main post because I didn't want people to accuse me of being a "Microsoft Sycophant" but I feel the need to defend the company against one other attack in the article...
“And, finally, however ‘impure’ it may be to the open sourcers, putting Windows on the XO was a huge breakthrough in the computing industry because Microsoft has let them have Windows XP for $3 per computer. One of the previous industry certainties was that Microsoft never ever sells anything cheap.
Look, I'm not going to defend the many, many things wrong with Microsoft but the truth is they donate more software to charity than any other company on earth. The only reason I could afford a modern infrastructure at my current job is because Microsoft (via Techsoup.org) donated all of the server software which would have been completely out of our pricerange otherwise and provided support that the Open Source alternatives didn't.
There are many things to bash Microsoft on but their commitment to helping charities isn't one of them.