New York Times Forgets to Credit OLPC for Netbooks


The New York Times ran a story today by Brad Stone and Ashley Vance called "$200 Laptops Break a Business Model," but the article forgets to mention one of the most enormous influences on this trend: the amazing innovations of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), my former client.

OLPC deserves credit for netbooks

They mention other disruptive technologies that are pushing down tech costs: virtualization, cloud computing, open source software, and even the Asus Eee PC laptop. But no OLPC.

It's a glaring omission, especially since you can argue quite convincingly that there would be no such thing as the $200 Asus netbook without OLPC. The story even includes this quote:

"The day of the Rolls-Royce laptop and the high-end computer may not be totally over," said Charles King, an independent technology industry analyst in Hayward. Calif. "But certainly the audience for that type of product is getting smaller and smaller."

Smaller because OLPC proved to the world that an inexpensive laptops could be durable, reliability and innovative (who doesn't want OLPC's daylight readable screen or low-energy capabilities?). OLPC created the market for low-cost laptops and forced for-profit manufacturers to begin offering stripped-down computers in reaction to the green-and-white XO laptop.

It's trendy now to criticize the program, but there's really no argument that OLPC blazed the trail for low-cost laptops. It's been one the biggest achievements of the organization. They deserve credit for that and OLPC should have been mentioned prominently in the New York Times article.

This article was originally published on HighTalk by George Snell, a former spokesperson and consultant for OLPC who now leads Highland Communications.

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Hey! They messed up!

I think the 2 biggest things about the XO was the idea that Linux could be run off a 1GB flash memory and Microsoft was not needed. Today, the new small commercial laptops use those tips!

I don't think this is a valid criticism. It's a pretty good article, and it's talking about trends, not origins. If the OLPC were selling millions of units a year commercially it would have gotten a mention - the shortsighted policy of not selling to end-users is prevented OLPC from being featured in this article.

Ted Lemon wrote:

"I don't think this is a valid criticism. It's a pretty good article, and it's talking about trends, not origins"

Well said, Ted.

In fact, if we are going to "get technical" about the origins or source of inspiration for this "netbook" phenomenon, the credit should go to the Simputer, not Negroponte.

But, then again, objectivity is not a strong suit for most OLPC followers. That almost complete disconnect from reality has greatly damaged the project.

Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm an OLPC fanatic too. So I would say that objectivity is orthogonal to OLPC fanhood. What frustrates me about articles like this is that I don't consider the OLPC dead, and the author of this article apparently does, since he's worried about the OLPC legacy and not about the OLPC.

I suspect the reason the XO has not been sold directly to end users (outside of brief forays into G1G1) is because the administrators know it is at best a beta machine and would create more problems than they were prepared to handle, e.g., delivery, tech support, returns, etc., with the public.

The XO has a combination of outstanding features, terrific display, rapid charging battery, innovative, rugged form factor, etc. along with a buggy OS, file management, browser and keyboard problems, memory and connectivity issues, etc. that interfere with it being seriously competitive.

That's not the reason they gave. I don't want to waste time crying over split milk here, but one serious problem with OLPC when it first came out was a lack of access by makers to the hardware. Rather than making sure everyone who wanted hardware and was willing to pony up for it got it as early as made sense, there was strict rationing of software, and a lot of development work that would have happened two years ago didn't because of that.

The hardware may have been beta two years ago, and the software may have been beta last year (and may still be, for that matter), but the hardware at this point is rock solid. It's a fantastic device, ideally suited for a lot of applications for which netbooks are not. It's rugged, and it's non-monolithic, so it's repairable when things go wrong.

So for people who want *that*, there continues to be a market need, and no competing devices that meet it. I realize that non-child non-education markets are not what the OLPC project was and is shooting for, but OLPC needs continuing development. At this point more development work would be going on if people had a sense that their work wasn't going to be wasted.

If I spend time hacking on the OLPC, which is a completely different platform than anything else out there, I want to make sure that there continues to be hardware on which my work will run. At this point I have no such assurance, because there is no supply chain. So pretty much any work I do has to make sense to do strictly for the purpose of running on existing XOs.

Gah. My brain isn't working today. Strict rationing of *hardware*.

My main point is that the computer, in this case the XO, is composed of hardware and software. If XOs are to be sold directly to end users (read individuals, parents, schools, etc.) it's important that everything work smoothly and effectively together. That means the XO cannot have significant issues difficult to resolve. Still at this point in the XO's development, that's not the case, IMO.

Absolutely. That's why getting hands on the hardware is so important. However, even with the version of Sugar that I'm running on my G1G1, it's pretty usable, and apparently the actual children are getting something out of it. The reason that the U.S. isn't the main target market is because children in the U.S. will compare it unfavorably with expensive computers running Windows that require recharging every two hours. For kids in rural villages with intermittent power, the OLPC is already a big win.


It's good to hear the positive reports from the field.

May it continue and grow!

is *what* prevented...


a little off topic maybe but...

does anyone have any idea why the heck the e-ink screen hasn't become some of a standard by this point? I mean, for goodness sakes, simply put, it makes for a BETTER screen!

Pixel Qi are working on that, but I haven't seen a product from them yet. Also, the OLPC screen is a little.. weird. I've used it fairly heavily, and I don't prefer the color screen. It's usable, but the pixel pattern is distracting. The mono screen is fantastic, but hard to read in anything but really good lighting.

Given the locations where we expect the device to be used, and the uses to which we expect it to be put, the screen is great, and to me it's one of the main selling points of an OLPC XO over, say, an EeePC. But it won't hit the mainstream until it's seen a few generations worth of improvement.

Guys... looking in from the outside here... should I B1G1 for my five year old? buy a used one for $200 on ebay or pony up for an HP? My son thinks that elves are diligently building his very-late christmas present even as we speak... so show a little compassion and give me some good advice. BTW... my five year old is an animal who smashes everything he touches.

thx - ari

What's your vision for how your 5-year-old is going to use this? I'm not saying it's a bad idea, but an OLPC XO is a very different beast, so be sure you understand what you're signing up for.

If G1G1 is still possible (I thought it'd ended at the first of the year?) that's certainly a better way to go, since in addition to your kid getting one, some other kid gets one. It's just a matter of price...

He would like to keyboard, paint (or something splotchy), play any kind of game and browse... beyond that, his creativity is really his own. He can't actually read, but he can name letters and their sounds and he can do what they tell him to on TV, for example, he can go to, he can even handle simple passwords.

You may be right about the B1G1 which is why the prices are getting bid up on ebay... they should continue B1G1 since they need the cash... and the exposure.