OLPC for ME?
1 April, 2007
Don’t say you didn’t see this coming. The question now: Is there a world wide market for OLPC? Quanta announced plans to market the OLPC computer worldwide for $200. It doesn’t take long to realize that the argument for less is more has legs. I found myself nodding in agreement listening to Nicholas Negroponte talk about feature creep; having overly bloated software that takes forever to load, uses up a huge amount of resources but only provides marginal improvement from the same software that was available years ago. I’m not sure I’ve gained much from this insight, because now I feel the pain even more acutely when I open a pdf file!
I remember my first LARGE hard drive. It was big in physical size and capacity. It was 40 megs! (it had to be partitioned to 2 20meg drives because the computer couldn’t address more then 20megs). I saw a 4 gig card the other day that was the size of a postage stamp. The amount of memory available today is astounding, a bit more then 640k. With all this new capacity imagine what we could have done with a simple software model.
Does this mean that OLPC will take over the world? I would say no. I believe the focus that Mr. Negroponte has is correct in its original vision. Having a solid, durable, networked computer that has low power consumption and a way to generate power in places that don’t have available electricity will mean a lot in developing countries.
Will these features be welcomed in developed countries. Yes possibly, but more likely the release of OLPC will spur competition and drive down the prices of other computers. What I believe will be the biggest change that could come out of this development is the demand for Open Source software out of the box. Imagine how much a computer today would cost if all the software installed was free. The problem of course is manufacture profits.
Having a single OLPC model, which includes hardware and software, will help since it significantly reduces the manufacturing costs. How low can profits go before companies will not be able to afford to produce these computers. Having OLPC’s high standards for longevity will help also because one way to reduce the need for profits is to decrease longevity and depend on frequent replacement orders or replacement parts.
These features of OLPC will hopefully make their way into consumers demands for inexpensive computers. I believe though that the limits placed on OLPC to achieve some of the availability, longevity, and networking goals will be too great for developed countries, and by simply offering Open Source version companies may be able to compete in price. OLPC achieves networking by selling at least a million units in an area to achieve the mesh network connections necessary to make it usable. The system really needs backup and the ability to download new software which is currently provided by local servers in schools or where ever possible. This architecture is truly inspired, and a huge benefit for countries where access to technology is extremely limited.
By the way I hope I’m wrong and OLPC is a huge success in developed countries. There is one possible scenario that will make OLPC a huge success in developed countries. If OLPC is marketed as a toy for children, it is within the price range of toys today and much more powerful, it could be very popular. In any case I’m sure that it will change things for the better. Within a year I’m sure there will be many $200 laptop choices available to you. Maybe all of the new models will include Squeak and EToys!
Ron is the Squeak News Team Leader. He is also President and Principal Software Engineer at US Medical Record Specialists.