Black and White Program

OLPC Adapts and Moves Forward

January 28th, 2008 by John Eastman

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At the World Economic Forum at Davos, Nicholas Negroponte of One Laptop Per Child provided a progress report on the organization’s efforts. He reported that 250,000 units have been manufactured and shipped. John Eastman interviewed Walter Bender, President of Software/Content and COO of One Laptop Per Child about the recent advancements.

So your organization began with a concept of designing, manufacturing, and distributing affordable laptop computers to every child in developing countries. Your desire was to provide access to new channels of learning, in order to leverage the child in the learning process and contribute to the eradication of poverty.

Over the past few years you’ve made great progress designing and producing the XO laptop. You’ve also met great challenges, including: Intel’s withdraw as supplier, rival organizations surfacing, and your CTO’s departure to form what may be considered a competing organization. These events are situations in which significant adaptability is necessary.

Did you foresee having challenges this difficult?
BENDER: First, let’s get the facts straight. Intel was never a supplier to OLPC and it was unable to provide components that meet our specifications, so its departure is not significant other than it has added to the level of noise and misinformation about the project. Mary Lou Jepsen, our former CTO, left on amicable terms and we hope to continue to work with her and her startup to develop better displays. Hers is not a competing organization. There are “rival” low-cost laptops on the market. To date, none of them make a better laptop than the XO laptop by any objective measure, but certainly over time they will. The real challenge is that they have framed our mission as a market, a market that is driven by volume and margins rather than children and learning. We were naive about their level of aggressiveness and the extent to which they would decontextualize their products in order to appeal to the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo is failing the majority of children.

In hindsight, what would you have done different?
BENDER: We had no choice about making laptops as part of our effort to reach children — no one would have done it otherwise. And we still need to make laptops for the foreseeable future in order to lead industry and to keep pressure on the commercial market to do the right thing for children in need. The one thing I would have done differently would be to have engaged the grassroots community simultaneously with attempting a top-down approach. Helping establish a solid and broad base early on would give us more momentum as we advocate change in an atmosphere of extreme conservatism.

How does this rapidly evolving market — that you have created — affect your plans?
BENDER: We need to ensure that our methods and models of learning interoperate with the variety of platforms that are being developed. The real disappointment with the Intel relationship was the unwillingness on Intel’s part to work with us on software and epistemological tools that would advance learning across all platforms: they were only interested in product differentiation. We need to work towards bringing the best learning opportunities to children, regardless of whose processor is inside the box.

Among the individuals of your organization, what qualities do they have that will enable them to maintain your initial mission?
BENDER: Everyone at OLPC is passionate about our mission; they see it as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of millions of children.

What can other technology developers learn here as this unfolds? What is your message to them?
BENDER: Everyone — children and adults — is capable of learning, but most people are not given an opportunity to be learners. As an engineer, a metric you must consider is to what extent does this impact the learning? Elliot Soloway referred to this as “learning-centric” design.

The design of the XO laptop introduced new technology in areas of display, power consumption, communication, and user interface. Is the design a synthesis of technologies from multiple technology firms? Who owns this technology? Is it patented?
BENDER: Most of the inspiration for the designs comes from nearly 50 years of research into technology and learning, work done at MIT and around the world. The specific technology embodied in the XO laptop, while informed by this research, is by-in-large the invention of OLPC, its partners, such as Red Hat and Chi Lin, and the open source community. We do have a number of patents on various hardware components, most of which are owned by OLPC or jointly with a partner. We’ve done all of our software development under Free and Open Source licenses, such as GPL.

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