[Edu-sig] OLPC on 60 Minutes

Jeff Rush jeff at taupro.com
Sat May 26 06:26:06 CEST 2007

kirby urner wrote:
> On 5/21/07, *Jeff Rush* <jeff at taupro.com <mailto:jeff at taupro.com>> wrote:
>     Yes, but Intel is, at this critical time (it couldn't be any worse),
>     trying to
>     suck the oxygen out of the project, suffocate it while
>     vulnerable.  It's a
>     common tactic with Intel.
> A billion computers is a lot of
> computers and it's not true that MIT needs a zero
> competition zone in every context.

It's not that MIT needs zero competition.  You misunderstand the term "suck
the oxygen" -- it refers to the dark side of capitalism, where a competitor
sows fear, uncertainty, doubt in the customer and financial market, where a
competitor locks suppliers into sole-customer agreements to keep critical
parts away from others, to obtaining sole source agreements with political
entities in return for support.  Often a young upstart competitor has limited
capital and if the market owner can drag out their getting to market, make it
hard to get additional funding or key anchor customers they will run out of
funds and die.

Negroponte has a limited amount of time to make OLPC happen, both due to
funding and developer mindshare.  There are many arrayed against him, who do
not want him to succeed.  You can just read all the postings around the
Internet to see that - the OLPC project engenders strong feelings on both
sides.  It's part of the reason I find it so fascinating.

> And I worry a bit about Negroponte's "dumping"
> rhetoric as it applies to Free Geek which literally
> intercepts what was headed to the landfill ("the dump")
> as refuse, and makes decent Freekboxes out it,
> bundled for schools, often using an LTSP
> configuration (beefy server, thin clients).

His "dumping" rhetoric was applied to Intel selling their laptops below cost,
not Free Geek's mission, a good one.  Besides Free Geek computers are not
targeted at the countries/economic niche that OLPC is.  The XO is unique in
its ability to run in physically hostile environments at its price point -
recycled PCs don't have a chance in their world.

Free Geek also, from my reading of their site, seems focused more on
vocational use of computers, providing OpenOffice.org and similar tools.  A
good thing, don't get me wrong, but OLPC is striving to provide "educational
materials" in a consistent environment.  A conventional PC, even one running
Linux, is still a rather difficult/diverse software environment and relies
upon educators to mold/apply it to their educational mission.

This consistent environment/platform is not to be underestimated -- it has the
potential to break the logjam and engender lots of open educational software.
Why do you think there is such a dearth of educational software today?  We
have all the tools we need, a hungry educational market and yet I find it so
hard to get people to create educational software.  OLPC can galvanize the
open source community to rally around the XO platform, which will never happen
with computers, even free ones, that use non-free software.  We have a known
hardware platform, operating system, desktop environment, programming language
(Python) and target user (children).  You can't get more focused than that.

> These solutions are easily containerized and
> shipped overseas, sometimes preconfigured as model
> small ecommerce sites with a dedicated web server,
> database server, and software to suit -- a setup
> XO laptops don't easily duplicate.

"model ecommerce sites"?  Are you expecting a flurry of 3rd world stores to
pop up?  You're focusing on vocational uses again.  The XO is an educational
laptop for children, to free their minds.  And many of those destinations lack
the continual Internet access and consistent power necessary for ecommerce in
any case.  It's silly.

> So here we are "dumping" our non-XO solutions into
> classrooms.  Are we "bad guys" for doing this?  And
> more to the point, is what we're doing really hurting
> MIT?  I wouldn't think so.

No, providing non-XO solutions to the homeless in America is not hurting MIT,
since that niche is not being targeted.  Please continue to help them.

> I was glad to see Geek Corps as part of the story
> BTW, as that adds more of a CP4E dimension to the
> OLPC piece, i.e. we're not just focusing on children.

As an educator you have to know that the minds of children are the most
adaptable to new ideas, to learning.  While vocational training of adults to
raise them out of poverty is important, you get more leverage from children.

Children, prior to age 5, are natural learners, exploring their world and
quickly picking up knowledge.  They lack the preconceived notions that impair
adults, that things are the way they are just because they always have been.

Adults in tight economic straits also tend to lack the discretionary time to
learn, and generally prefer formal classroom training.  So many have forgotten
how to learn, so many have lost the thrill of learning.  And adults will
sacrifice for their children more than for themselves, working extra hours so
their children can have a better life.

> Plus I would guess he'll turn out to be really quite
> flexible once the rollout is underway,

I'm sure he is flexible - there are so many ways that Intel could help, but
isn't.  They could have stepped up, taken the open hardware design and
competed to make an XO using Intel parts but with a better power/price
profile.  It could have been an industry competitive event.  Intel could have
embraced the server part of XO, volunteering to produce that as a counter to
AMD.  They could have offered leverage with their suppliers, to help OLPC
obtain parts.

Intel's focus is on killing AMD - nothing else.  In the business news these
two are fighting each other over a saturated market, with distorted pricing to
keep the other from revenue and suffocate them.  If Intel can eliminate AMD,
they can control pricing but they cannot sustain this price war indefinitely.
Either the market must consolidate or become unsaturated.  OLPC stands at the
gateway of both, unfortunately for OLPC.

Intel is not so much worried about missing out on revenue on laptops as that
their nemesis will gain economies of scale in their chip foundries, from
producing the billions necessary to supply Negroponte's vision.  Even if AMD
sells them to OLPC's builder for cost, AMD will be strengthened in their
ability to compete with Intel.

Another slant -- it is better to have a non-profit like OLPC at the helm of
the educational thrust, with AMD a key partner but controlled by the other
project members, than to let a for-profit like Intel run things.  Admittedly
non-profits are not automatically angelic, but I think OLPC understands this
project better than Intel.  OLPC has been working on this for years,
consulting with various countries on their needs.  I believe OLPC is doing
this for the right reasons and Intel isn't.  Remember the old saying, that
doing the right thing for the wrong reasons corrupts the work.

Intel is simply wrong for this.  Being for-profit and, so far, rather
dictatorial in their approach to this project, they cannot garner the
mindshare of goodwill that OLPC has.  OLPC has amassed a set of partnerships
and captured the mindshare of the open source and charitable communities.  Go
read the postings on the OLPC site -- people are volunteering to set their
lives aside to help -- it's rather inspirational and emotional.  They wouldn't
do that just for a corporation.

And when it is unable or unwilling to gain partners in those hard-to-control
communities, Intel will fall back on industry partnerships, with Microsoft,
with those aggressive textbook publishers who squeeze the US educational
system, with the commercial educational software companies behind the laptop
failures reported in the news.  They will push Windows, not Linux (yes they
say their unit will run both), special "discount" versions of their products,
preying on the fear of governments that their people won't be vocationally
trained in 1st world office technology.  They will peddle control, to those
governments, to the school boards and a fear of falling behind.  And once OLPC
is marginalized, if those countries aren't paying to its cabal enough to make
it worthwhile, they will cancel the project, ostensibly at the behest of their
shareholders, saying it just doesn't make economic sense to help those children.

It is also in our own interests, for many reasons but one is that a strong AMD
to compete with Intel will keep technology prices down for us consumers, and
stimulate innovation from both of them.  We do NOT want Intel to destroy AMD,
regardless of what you think of AMD products.

Just my rather long-winded $0.02,


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