OLPC is that small (30 person) company with the audacious vision of truly bridging the global digital divide. Founded by Nicholas Negroponte (whom also led the start up of MIT’s Media Lab), the organization is determined to bring learning tools to children who have little reason to hope for a better future. Though their technology defines innovation and they are supported (financially and through collaboration) by companies such as Google, eBay, Nortel, Underwriters Laboratories, AMD and others, proof of concept has not been enough to push them past the tipping point.
For one thing, governments have not been as bullish as one might expect. At a net cost of approximately $100 per unit, one hundred billion dollars would effectively put these learning tools in the hands of every one of the billion kids in the world who currently have no access to computers. To put that in perspective, ten U.S. banks got the green light today to pay back $68 billion in bailouts from the TARP program. While I’m not suggesting that American tax payers or businesses should be footing the bill for this project, the scope signals that where there’s a will there’s a way.
On the corporate side, companies are already starting to see larger parts of the developing world as attractive hubs for consumerism in ways that seemed impossible only a few years ago (we have the propagation of mobile phones in Africa and Indonesia to thank for that). So there should be more buy in, more competition, right? Ironically, the XO laptop design was so far ahead of its time that it spawned the more commercial-friendly progeny now known as the netbook. Frankly, most companies seem to be weighing the appeal of selling $400 laptops to consumers with income of $40,000 (or more) against the notion of trying to fund computers for people earning less than $1,000 per year. What’s especially sad about this (human progress aside) is that the OLPC laptop uses very little power and is completely recyclable; a truly sustainable architecture that other manufacturers could (and should) certainly be learning from and emulating.
So only 1.2 million units have been shipped so far, and“the next billion”continue waiting. Meanwhile, the divide gets wider every day. Apple announced the new iPhone 3GS today, simultaneously reporting a price drop to $99 on the now classic model. Soon enough, tweens in every industrialized country will be sporting smartphones. Paradoxically, part of the resistance OLPC experiences is the pervasive perception that their product is a toy. Herein lies Satish Jha’s wisdom: tonight at a TiE-Boston (LINK) presentation he explained the company’s view that the XO laptop is neither a computer (in the traditional sense) nor a toy. Rather, it is a learning tool, built to engage and enliven the educational experience. Think of it this way: you probably know a four year old who can use video games, cell phones and computers, right? The illiterate around the world are no different, but we tend to think differently about them. Give these people a tool like a mobile phone or yes, even a simple laptop, and the learning begins. From there, entrepreneurship and real business development can take root. This, in my opinion, is the absolute fundamental key to economic prosperity.
OLPC started out facing three challenges, and solved each of them with equal aptitude:
->the laptop is highly intuitive, allowing even a young child to discover on his or her own.
->requires very little power (can be sourced via solar or even a car battery)
->can connect to the internet or other XO’s over the internet (via WiFi if available) or 3G.
->is shock proof, dust proof and water proof.
->has no moving parts, which would otherwise be the most likely points of failure.
->has a 5+ year battery life.
->$0 in software costs, as everything is open-sourced.
Now for the hard part:
For comparison, Satish illustrated the fact that television, radio, computers, the internet and mobile devices have all greatly surpassed society’s original vision for their uses. OLPC’s real confrontation is turning out not to be technological, political or economic. Rather, the current and most significant foible is that of perception: overall, we in the ‘developed’ world don’t believe that a computer could be the solution to poverty. Instead of giving poor people computers, conventional wisdom suggests we should be helping them to organize more stable political systems, teaching agricultural methods, treating disease, making capital available, etc.
I believe that there’s another way, and it’s been modeled over the past twenty years. It’s something you already know about, and it’s called China. After Tienanmen Square the Chinese government stealthily adopted a policy that allows ‘freedom’ through economic progress. Question the political process all we want, but one result is undeniable, the standard of living in that country has risen dramatically and their economic power is a boon for manufacturers; everyone wants access to their sales channels.
We tend to see backwards what Negroponte inherently understands: teach people how to learn and they will invent opportunity.
How to solve it?
The people running OLPC are smarter than I’ll ever be. Still, I’m idea guy, so I’m humbly going to suggest three possible solutions to the current perception/financial limitations that prevent them from scaling:
What do you think? What are your ideas?
Update: this morning Mashable’s lead story discusses how almost three quarters (73%) of those interviewed in a recent U.K. survey think that broadband internet is as essential as water or electricity. Perhaps our perceptions really are changing. That would bode well for the OLPC initiative. On the other hand, “some 43% of adults who currently do not have internet access would remain disconnected even if they were given a free PC and broadband connection.” Clearly not everyone is sold on the perceived value of connectivity.