Stephen Dukker, chief executive of NComputing, has a serious hating on One Laptop Per Child, but for many of the wrong reasons.
In August, when I read his rhetorical proclamation "Is the OLPC project doomed to failure?" I thought he was going to hone in on any number of Nicholas Negroponte's grand proclamations that are slowly showing false, like governments should buy millions of computers without first pilot testing, there's no need for an implementation plan, or children can learn learning without teacher training.
But instead, the former chief executive of eMachines took a whole other angle to try and knee-cap "$100 laptops":
Helping people in the developing world cross the digital divide is a fundamental act of decency and generosity... As laudable as this dream is, the ideal unfortunately runs counter to a fundamental fact of life: a computer cannot exist independent of basic economic realities.While he's right to say a computer needs a whole profit-driven ecosystem of support, from maintenance to connectivity, he's apparently not heard of DVD players, cell phones or radio if he thinks that electronics require a $200+ price point to generate healthy professional services around them.
A computer is, rather, a creature of connectivity and collaboration. And, given the economic realities in the developing world, $200 computers cannot generate the profit essential for the creation of a robust IT ecosystem, which is essential to ensure successful deployment, ongoing operation and maintenance.
What all those electronics have in common, besides dropping prices well below $200, is the ability to repurpose them for commercial use. A cell phone can be rented to others, and its top-up cards are sold on ever corner. DVD players and DVD player mechanics cover every country to supply demanded entertainment, and radio stations & receivers have been solid technology-based businesses since the 1940's.
Stephen Dukker was really trying to introduce his own technology-based business, the thin-client model NComputing, and position it as an even-lower cost computing model for developing world governments. Instead of one-to-one computing, Stephen wants countries to equip schools with shared-access computer labs based around his company's non-CPU-based access terminals.
And he took this argument all the way to the Wall Street Journal where he tried to bust out a can of Whoop-Ass on Walter Bender, President, Software and Content, One Laptop Per Child. And "tried" is the operative word because Walter Bender put the uppity Stephen Dukker in his place by pointing out the major difference in approach.
Mr. Bender: Your choice of words describing our missions is interesting: "computer-assisted education." At OLPC, we'd say: "computer-enabled learning."real cost of OLPC implementation could be in excess of $1,000 per child, while just the hardware costs alone could bankrupt Nigeria. Yet NComputing isn't much cheaper either.
The OLPC approach is one of saturation: The children have access to computing 24-7. Even if they don't have more than two to three hours per day in school -- typical in the developing world -- they have ample time to explore, express, and communicate outside of school. Further, a laptop program touches the whole family: siblings, parents, grandparents, etc. The community impact is enormous.
Stephen likes to say its $11 per child for his model, but he conveniently leaves out the fact his figures don't include monitors, not that either organization is honest about mundane but significant costs, like electricity.
Now that's not to say NComputing's CEO was off all the time. He did make two very valid points in Will Low-Cost Laptops Help Kids in Developing Countries?:
Mr. Dukker:Having deployed the solution in over 70 countries though, we have learned that a single model does not work. Each country, each state, each school and each teacher will have a different way to accomplish computer-enabled learning. A monolithic model simply won't work.A single model will not work - neither one OLPC XO per child or only NComputing labs in schools. A mix of systems and models will emerge.
Another concern is the ability of centralized governments to deploy and manage 250,000 laptop deployments at a time (minimum order quantity for OLPC). There are very few organizations (much less central governments) that have that kind of planning, architecting, deployment, and management capability.
Heck, even large global enterprises have a difficult time deploying 10,000 laptops. This gets back to a core ecosystem issue: unless there is a private-sector based ecosystem, deployment and maintenance becomes a nightmare…
Very poor, rural schools will have some form of shared use model, NComputing systems or labs of XO's lined up to serve 10 children per computer. In richer areas, there might be a computer lab for younger kids, and personal computers for older children.
In wealthy, urban areas, each child will have their own computer from a young age, changing them with their needs. Maybe XO's at first and later switching to more robust laptops that can captivate a teenager exposed to Xbox and Wii.
But no matter the mix, no country can effectively distribute 250,000+ computers annually to its nation's children no matter how much United National Development Programme might help. Especially not when each computer, possibly equal to a year's wage, will be free to the recipient, few of whom hold positions of power in their community. That's a guaranteed recipe for theft and graft on a massive scale that not even Bitfrost security could deter.
And that's why Stephen is right to say there needs to be a private industry angle. By creating a XO distribution value chain, local producers, resellers, and support services, an entire business use case for feasible and sustainable OLPC implementation can emerge to ensure computers reach children and continue to enrich their lives long after OLPC moves on to the next country.
So while Stephen Dukker might be on an anti-OLPC campaign to improve NComputing's competitive positioning in selling computers to governments for educational purposes, he would do best to stick with arguments that are valid, like mixed-use models and commercial ecosystem support, but drop his rants on price points.
OLPC may still cling to "$100 laptop" marketing gimmicks, but we've all moved on to the real issues, and he should too.