On the XO Laptop

A new computer virus, XO Laptop Envy

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[First published as A new computer virus, XO Envy on November 25, 2007.]

The Wall Street Journal for November 24, 2007, has an article by Steve Stecklow and James Bandler about the new XO laptop from the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child Project), A Little Laptop With Big Ambitions.

Before discussing any article from a trade publication such as the WSJ that attempts to explain computers or computer software, it is important to set the stage by seeing just how the article is presented.

The usual motif is of a contest, with one business giant struggling to defeat another. Here we have the “David and Goliath” variant that pits the non-profit OLPC team, led by Mr. Nicholas Negroponte and twenty or so colleagues, against the Goliaths of Microsoft and Intel, creators of the “WinTel” computing platform that is the most widely use platform today.

Here are few extracts (emphasis added, my comments in italic):

But nearly three years later, only about 2,000 students in pilot programs have received computers from the One Laptop project. An order from Uruguay for 100,000 machines appears to be the only solid deal to date with a country, although Mr. Negroponte says he’s on the verge of sealing an order from Peru for 250,000. The first mass-production run, which began this month in China, is for 300,000 laptops, tens of thousands of which are slated to go to U.S. consumers. Mr. Negroponte’s goal of 150 million users by the end of 2008 looks unattainable.

150 million users in a year or so? No surprise that this won’t happen. I take this is a good sign. The team has lofty ambitions. Lofty ambition inspires risk-taking, a necessary ingredient of true innovation.

Mr. Negroponte’s ambitious plan has been derailed, in part, by the power of his idea. For-profit companies threatened by the projected $100 price tag set off at a sprint to develop their own dirt-cheap machines, plunging Mr. Negroponte into unexpected competition against well-known brands such as Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system.

Interesting. A small team of twenty has attracted the attention of the “big boys.” Perhaps that are on to something.

[Mr. Negroponte said] “”My goal is not selling laptops. OLPC is not in the laptop business. It’s in the education business.”

I beg to differ on this. This is not an education business. It is all about creating what I call a “terraputer,” a low-cost computing platform suitable for use anywhere in the world and powered entirely by free and open-source software.

By most accounts, Mr. Negroponte and his 20-member team have created a rugged, innovative laptop with good software for learning. The small green-and-white device is designed to operate on very little power — a small solar panel can keep it going — and to resist rain and dust. Its unique, high-resolution screen stays bright even in direct sunlight. The laptop has a built-in video camera and connects wirelessly to the Internet and to other laptops of its kind.

The key features are rugged, video camera, wireless, and most important of all, “very little power.” We’ll discuss this later.

“The Intel machine is a lot better than the OLPC,” says Mohamed Bani, who chairs Libya’s technical advisory committee but doesn’t have the final say on buying laptops. “I don’t want my country to be a junkyard for these machines.” Libya has decided buy at least 150,000 Intel Classmates. The future of the One Laptop program there is now uncertain.

Libya? They don’t care about the power requirements of the OLPC. They have so much oil that power consumption is no consideration. The rest of the world, save the few other oil-rich countries, is not so fortunate.

Because the initial production volume is smaller than expected, the project hasn’t benefited from anticipated economies of scale. Design upgrades — more memory and a faster microprocessor, the brains of the machine — also added to the price, apparently costing the project sales.

This is key. We need to get as many people to buy XO laptops as soon as possible, to harness the economies of scale that will relentlessly drive down the price.

Nigeria, for example, so far has failed to honor a pledge by its former president to purchase one million laptops. That’s partly because they no longer cost $100 apiece, says Tomi Davies, a Nigerian-born technology entrepreneur who helped Mr. Negroponte set up talks with Nigerian officials.

Nigeria? Don’t they also produce a lot of oil? That would explain why they only focus on the dollar cost, not on the cost of generating the electricity needed to power computers.

The higher price also has made the laptop vulnerable to competition from sellers of more traditional, Windows-based machines. For many education ministries, “it’s a no-brainer you go with Microsoft,” says Mr. Davies.

No-brainer if you go with Microsoft? Perhaps so, if the cost of electricity is no concern. See below for more on this. This also suggests the education ministries need more education themselves.

As sales problems mounted, the project recently reversed course on its plan not to sell the device to American consumers. On Nov. 12, it began selling pairs of laptops to U.S. and Canadian buyers for $399. Under the program — called “Give One. Get One.” — one goes to a student in a poor country like Haiti, the other to the buyer. The program was supposed to last just two weeks, but on Thursday One Laptop said it was extending the offer through Dec. 31 because “people want more time to participate.” Mr. Negroponte says there were about 45,000 two-laptop orders in the first nine days, with nearly half coming on the first day.

Note the mention of sales problems, and claim that project had to reverse course. I think the project is on the right course, doing whatever it takes to get more orders to XO laptops, as the more orders the sooner the cost will go down.

This is first mention I have seen about the number of laptops so far ordered under the “Buy 1 Give 1” program. These are higher than I would have guessed. Five thousand per day is a very good sign.

Mr. Negroponte draws no salary from the nonprofit, which only has about 20 paid employees.

Good for you, Mr. Negroponte. You are a true volunteer. That a team so small has achieved so much bodes well for the success of the project. By the way, the team is going to get much bigger soon. For example, I have ordered four XO’s, and my suggestion that some friends and colleagues should order XO’s has already resulted in commitments to buy six more.

Publicly, Intel and Microsoft officials didn’t hide their disdain for Mr. Negroponte’s machine. In December 2005, Intel Chairman Craig R. Barrett called an early version a “$100 gadget” that wasn’t likely to succeed. At a conference in March 2006, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said: “Geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you’re not sitting there cranking the thing while you’re trying to type.”

Note to fellow open-source developers who join the XO team: Not only are we are going to have a lot of fun as we make the world a better place, we can look forward to the satisfaction of seeing Mr. Barrett and Mr. Gates eat their words. The XO was built to run open-source, not to run Windows. We can finally take them on on our home turf.

There are no signs that Mr. Negroponte’s project is in danger of fading away. Robert Fadel, its director of finance and operations, says the nonprofit has enough funding to last years. Its dozen corporate benefactors this year contributed $16.5 million, and it will be using $1 from each computer sold to cover administrative costs. Last year, it took in $7.6 million in revenue, mainly from donors, and its budget this year is about $9.5 million. As of September, it had $8.7 million in cash on hand, an internal document indicates.

Good news indeed. Give us enough time and we open-source developers will write new applications for education,and also many other worthwhile causes. See for example terraputer, xo-laptop xo-sahana: A historic occasion, using the XO Laptop to run Sahana

But it continues to face skepticism from its target audience. At a training conference it hosted this month in Cambridge for a large group of educators and tech specialists from developing countries, participants peppered Mr. Negroponte and other project officials with questions about teacher training and software bugs. “It will always have bugs in it and it will never be perfect,” Mr. Negroponte told them, adding that he has a “royal battle” with his Windows-based computer nearly every morning.

Amen, Mr. Negroponte. I also struggle with Windows daily. Yes it will have bugs, but fewer and fewer as time goes on. That you have produced a rugged laptop capable of running a LAMP application such as Sahana proves you have given the world a powerful tool. About twenty-five years worth of open-source software, and the lessons learned writing it, is about to be brought to bear to improve the XO and its operating environment, each and every day, by programmers from around the world, some of whom are now children, and will receive their education on how to program using the XO laptop.

The article is certainly correct in that the XO is “a little laptop with big ambitions.”

It is also the work of a small project going against some powerful adversaries: Intel and Microsoft.

It is also no surprise that two of the countries that are hesitant to deploy the XO, claming that is is too expensive, are themselves among the few oil-rich countries who get the power by having all the power they need flow out of the ground at no cost.

But the XO laptop has a powerful advantage that I think will result in its having a decisive impact going forward.

The power of the XO is that it needs so little power to operate it, as discussed in the post xo-laptop: The Power of the XO is its Power Supply


Written by daveshields

December 12, 2007 at 2:52 pm

Posted in xo-laptop

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