Commercial OLPC Sales‽ Five years late, but great!


I'm glad that OLPC has finally released what was originally put out as the vapourware-ish XO-3 concept three and a half years back. At the end of the day, though, that's "just" a change in technology (though a huge shift in hardware and underlying software!).

What I'm actually very excited about is commercial sales. This is something I've been arguing in favor of for only around five years or so:

The bottom-of-they-pyramid microfinance approach doesn't even have to drop the education focus. While the returns on education are much to slow to repay loans effectively in most cases, grant programs or other implementations could focus on child usage. For example; the XO could be on sale for anyone; but only young entrepreneurs could qualify for the micro-loans, and they'd have to provide some explanation of how this would fit into their learning. Schools or education-oriented civil groups could to buy on credit in bulk, provided they could support both an educational aspect and a profit-making aspect. Grants could be available to even younger children participating in educational programs, skimming profits off of the loan system and successful entrepreneurs in a new G1G1 style program.

In my XO Files series, my final piece (which was mostly the last substantive work I put in to writing about OLPC) proposed four "new years resolutions" ( 2009) -- deciding on a mission statement, stop overreaching, listen to the community, and sell the OLPC commercially:

I strongly believe that the technology behind the XO is, as Wayan likes to put it, "clock-stopping hot." It's valuable. It's the best travel laptop on the market. Make a new form factor for it, or at least an adultish color scheme, optionally bump up the specs a slight bit, ship it with Ubuntu or pure-RH boot/install USB sticks, and market it to international travelers, hikers (with an extra solar panel charging kit!), parents, kitchen warriors (it makes a great Internet/ station in the kitchen), geeks (probably almost saturated market there), and people who just want a reliable, sturdy, and lightweight laptop/netbook.
Drop the Give-one part and sell the damned thing for a modest profit that OLPC can honestly use for operating expenses. Make a for-profit spinoff that donates profits back to the non-profit foundation - find a way, everyone wants one, and your window for getting in to the 4PC netbook market that you almost single-handedly created is closing. Also, sell or license schwag and accessories. There's so much brand potential behind the XO to make a bit of money to support the Foundation that it's ridiculous not to capitalize on at least some chunk of that. At the very least, aggressively promote the licensing of the technology - especially the screen - to other netbook manufacturers and make some dough off of that, while at the same time spreading the technology to the field. If the end goal is to get low-cost, rugged laptops to the children of the world, one way is just to have many low-cost, competing options that governments and development workers can use in their projects.

They missed the window for the XO-1, and the netbook market, then the ultrabook and tablet market passed them by. They had cutting-edge technology that they refused to leverage to further their mission. If you can't tell, I still am unable to forgive that choice -- if the tablet can't find a commercial niche somewhere in the global market, it's not fulfilling needs that will ultimately mean it's a side-show in education. I think their difficult path over the past few years has underlined that challenge.

I'm glad they're changing course with the XO Tablet, but at the same time I'm worried that at the end of the day, it's just a low-spec, low-cost tablet, and not the innovative package of open hardware/software that the XO-1 provided, with a hybrid color/black-and-white screen that was crisp in direct sunlight, amazing wifi range, and ridiculous low-power consumption and long battery life (at the time). This is a low-res tablet with average battery life and a nice child-friendly case. Further, OLPCNews points out that the tablet is not even running the constructivist educational software, Sugar, and is receiving criticism for moving towards low-cost commodity sales.

At the end of the day, though, I'd rather have a product that's done and commercially available than wild, overreaching dreams. Congrats to the OLPC team for the commercial launch -- I plan on being a customer and hanging it up in my kitchen.

Jon Camfield started contributing to OLPC News in late 2006. This article which first appeared on his personal website is re-published here with his permission.


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1 Comment

The commercial release of the android/XO tablet is fine with me.
What is not clear to me is who decided that the Sugar/XO-4-touch for example, is *not* marketable. OLPC, the potential sellers, other?
And why? Is it the license, the hardware, the linux/sugar environment, all of the above, other :-?
Would be nice to have some input on this.