A few of e-mails over the long weekend asked if I had an opinion on the new OLPC announcement (being it seems to be right up my alley given my job). The truth is, I had been trying to avoid the topic because I find the difference between the potential of the idea and the reality almost painful.
For those unfamiliar, OLPC stands for One Laptop Per Child and its an organization that created a cheap laptop for kids in developing nations (though most times OLPC is used to refer to the laptop itself which is officially named the XO-1). It has wireless and flash memory but no hard drive and runs on a Linux operating system. The organization recently announced a new version due out in 2010 that would use a touch screen (see picture below)
Look, as much as I hate to say it, the OLPC has never been a good idea. In fact, my entire career is an example of how its not a good idea.
You see, I do what I do because there's no money in helping kids. Simple as that. No one spends money on helping kids because no VC will fund a startup that helps kids because most of the kids who need help don't have the money to pay for it. Which means almost no good software gets written to help kids.
You ever wonder why educational software is so lousy?
Its because it was done on a shoestring budget by a programmer who was probably working for cheap. Again, there's simply no money in helping kids.
Which brings us back to the OLPC.
OLPC uses a rare version of Linux with a custom environment called Sugar on top of it. This means that software has to be specifically written for the OLPC and that just isn't going to happen. That developer I mentioned before, the one who built cheaply made children's programs, isn't going to learn Python, Sugar and Linux to write for a laptop that only poor kids are going to have.
So while I love the idea of every kid in the world carrying around their own mini-notebook I realize that no software is going to be written for it unless its bootstrapped onto something else. Giving kids a PC with no software is about as bad as giving them no PC at all.
That, by the way, is where products like Asus' Eee PC come in. The Eee PC is a $399 "mini-pc" running a full version of XP Home. It isn't rugged-ized which is a problem when dealing with kids and it costs $199 more but it can run any Windows software and comes with a few niceties like a built in webcam.
Plus, the OLPC organization has never been great with price. The OLPC 1.0 was supposed to come in under $99 but it ended up costing $200. Now they say they have a more advanced touch screen model that's going to cost $78 and we're supposed to believe them? Not likely...
Anyway, long story short, the OLPC is a nice thought but it will never get traction. I can't wait for the day when every kid can have their own notebook but that isn't going to happen through the OLPC.