Ivan Krstić says in his blog that he quit OLPC a few weeks ago because he was no longer to work with Walter Bender, but with an unnamed manager with no technical knowledge. Also that OLPC's kernel manager is leaving.
Walter is, in his own words, "out of the loop" now. Supposedly there will be a new CEO and COO sometime.
In the meantime, Nicholas Negroponte is the only person in charge, and he has nothing to do with the people doing the work. We are not allowed to talk with him, we cannot get questions sent to him for answers, and he will not tell anybody what is going on, except to make bizarre remarks to reporters about becoming more like Microsoft.
Well, all right, I exaggerate. I have sent in one communication that I was told would be passed on to Nicholas. But I don't exaggerate by much. I haven't heard a peep in response.
All through last year, when the volunteers and the tiny paid engineering staff were working miracles, I was a total OLPC booster. I never saw such productivity in hardware or software design anywhere in industry. I knew enough about educational software to be able to picture the world-changing potential of a billion or so children let loose among the riches of the Internet. That's real educational software, by the way, like the Edison Talking Typewriter or Smalltalk, not the shovelware that gets churned out and marketed with eye candy at absurd prices to clueless school systems and parents.
The potential is all still there, and some of it will unquestionably be realized, but OLPC as a project is at the proverbial crossroads, the make-or-break, do-or-die point in its existence.
The problem is Nicholas.
I'm not talking about the seemingly absurd claims that Wayan complains about, like
- children doing all the maintenance - we have seen five- and six-year-olds doing it.
- or being able to discover OLPC software with barely any teaching - we see that all the time, too.
- or whether teachers can adapt to the XO without training - yes, we also see that
- or about the costs of the program, or whether it makes economic sense for countries to finance XOs in expectation of future tax revenue.
No, what I am talking about is the fact that Nicholas Negroponte doesn't know how to run a business, and what is worse, doesn't know how to pick someone to run a business. Now, in the legal sense, OLPC isn't a business, but a non-profit. Which means it can't sell stock and pay dividends. It's still allowed to make money.
To manage the creation of the support network for educating a billion children, a bit of money will actually be necessary. I don't have room to make the argument in full today, but I believe that trying to reduce the cost of the laptop absolutely as much as possible is a strategic error.
Cost is only one variable, and not the one we most want to optimize. The idea is to maximize the amount of education and consequent economic and social development from the program. Making a profit from the rich customers in order to get more computers to the poor would therefore make a lot of sense. But only if done right.
Not with an incompetent order-entry and fulfillment system, no customer support to begin with, and no oversight to make sure that errors are corrected as quickly as possible.
"Mere parsimony is not economy. Expense, and great expense, may be an essential part in true economy."--Edmund BurkeIt isn't actually necessary that OLPC make and spend that money. Once educated children come out of schools and take jobs, or better still, start their own businesses and create jobs, the rest can in principle follow from the inevitable growth of economies, as long as somebody has some idea of what it is worth spending on.
There is still promise
Whether it will follow remains the question. As I said before, we can make it happen. Or Nicholas can hire the people to make it happen. Or not.
What might we make happen? We could just continue with the tired old Prussian factory-drill style of education that Horace Mann installed in the US a century ago, even with laptops. Then we can expect to have the same tired old nationalisms and the same tired old Devil-take-the-hindmost, beggar-thy-neighbor social orders that the Prussian system was designed to support.
Or we could teach children to be independent and self-reliant, able to learn new subjects even without teachers, and also skilled at cooperation. Then we might surprise ourselves.
How do you pick successful business or movement leaders? Well, if I really knew that, I would no doubt be Warren Buffett, or possibly Muhammad Yunus. I know that a passion for the customer is essential, that knowing the business is essential, and that the ability to communicate is essential. Both ways, but talking less and listening more.
Nicholas has plenty of passion for the children and certainly knows more than most about tech and education, but he is one of the worst communicators I have observed in action. Well, we'll see.
Editors Note:Think you could do better in leading OLPC? Then Be Nicholas Negroponte for a Day in the OLPC News Forum Contest - $50 in XOexplosion gear could be yours!