Obscured by the hoopla of the Consumer Electronics Show was the announcement this week that the high-minded One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is laying off half its staff, cutting remaining salaries and refocusing its mission.
The stated reason--stop me if you have heard this before--is the U.S. economic and industry recession. (One of the side effects of the U.S. recession is that it provides a convenient, all-purpose excuse for bad ideas or botched implementations.)
Obviously, having business troubles is no sin, but I've had my misgivings about the troubled project from the beginning, when I heard its leader and tech evangelist Nicholas Negroponte explain how it would bring PC-based enlightenment to children around the world. All this for $100 per laptop. A little voice in the back of my head kept wondering if all this self-congratulation, combined with so much media adulation, was ignoring the possibility that a basic water filtration system or a solar-powered LED lamp might be a much better use of technology and money, with a longer life in the field.
But what really bothered me about OLPC was the attitude of the operation. The boundary between an enthusiastic proponent and a sanctimonious evangelist is sometimes a very thin one. Too often, those who are out the save the world soon think that if you are not 100 percent with them, then you are with the enemy. That's what I heard from OLPC from the start.
When Intel Corp. considered supporting an independent, low-cost laptop design, the folks at OLPC were outraged, implying that competition was some sort of betrayal of their cause. Never mind that Intel was responsible directly and indirectly for supplying the process technology, if not actual ICs, that enabled the OLPC effort.
Similar moves by Microsoft were also condemned.
The reality is this is an industry which has dramatically increased performance while reducing costs through various combinations of harmonious cooperation and vicious competition. The OLPC folks transformed their worthy objective into a single-minded mission, and that's a dangerous mindset.
What happened? The PC industry did what it does best: It saw an opportunity driven by the market and technology, and is working to fill it. Netbooks are the rage right now, functioning as no-frills laptops retailing for under $500. There's serious talk of $200 machines soon.
Yes, some of these netbooks may run the Windows operating system rather than free and open Linux. To kids in impoverished schools who can use netbooks to access pre-loaded and online material, the choice of OS is irrelevant. They just need a useful tool, rather than one which they can customize. Remind me again: Was the primary purpose of OLPC to get laptops to kids, or to turn them into OS programmers and hackers?
The OLPC project reminds us that ostensibly good intentions can become a vehicle for people with narrow-minded agendas, or those who are seeking to work out some deeper issues of guilt in which the ends--at least to them--justify their means.