Nevermind: OLPC shouldn't sell the XO laptop

OLPC News recently ran a (somewhat tongue-in-cheek article on How to buy an XO Laptop, which mainly pointed people to eBay. Which is sad, but eBay has long been the best place to get your hands on an OLPC if you're not a large government, international development agency, or cutting edge developer.

I've long argued that OLPC should sell the XO, two years ago (almost to the day), I said:

A market approach loses something [equality], but might make up for it in spread and long-term impact. A bottom-up approach is still very constructivist; and doesn't necessarily have to lose it's child-centric flavor. If the underlying goal is closing the "digital divide" and helping these countries; what you need is a self-sustaining project, not an infinite series of projects and recurring costs to the government for new laptops.

I assigned OLPC a New Years resolution for 2009 to sell the XO commercially:

Drop the Give-one part and sell the damned thing for a modest profit that OLPC can honestly use for operating expenses. Make a for-profit spin-off that donates profits back to the non-profit foundation - find a way, everyone wants one, and your window for getting in to the 4PC netbook market that you almost single-handedly created is closing. Also, sell or license schwag and accessories. [...] If the end goal is to get low-cost, rugged laptops to the children of the world, one way is just to have many low-cost, competing options that governments and development workers can use in their projects.

And I finally got a response as to why OLPC won't sell the XO near the end of 2009 from Nicholas Negroponte himself:

Negroponte responded with two reasons why OLPC was not interested in essentially individual sales:

  • The laptops are designed to be used in a group, and a certain density is required for their collaborative network
  • OLPC would have to become a laptop company, dealing with support, and it's simply not qualified to do so.

Which I, at the time, strongly disagreed with, citing the cell phone as a disruptive technology which relied on the same network effects as the OLPC and spread through the market by meeting a valuable demand.

The OLPC created the market for netbooks/Ultra-Mobiles and other "4P" computers, and could have been a major player in the market with its unique features.

The fact is, the market it created has passed it by for many potential buyers who could have supported the XO ecosystem financially, if not through bug reporting and hacking. I understand the desire to maintain a "purity of mission," but a large install-base is never a bad thing for a technology.

For the longest time, I carried my XO around as a go-to laptop for taking notes or a quick jump onto the Internet. I appreciated its good battery life, the awesome screen, and the amazing wifi reception. But it cost $400 through the G1G1 program. Now, there are many computers, available for a lower price, with a comparable feature set and more powerful hardware.

The time to take the XO to market is gone. Which is sad, because while many of the netbooks which filled the gap are quality systems, they aren't designed to the same rugged spec that the XO was, nor with the strong commitment to open technology. But they'll do in a pinch, and, frankly, I can buy as many or as few as I need - even just one.

Comments

A netbook, with sugar installed, will give the same collaboration, if you're wanting one of these educational tools.

I'm pleased OLPC is focusing on larger deployments, be they classroom sized, school, region or countrywide. It achieves their goal. The G1G1 didn't help them in their mission so they stopped it.

Someone else could start a company that sells these things, or similar. The design is incredibly open. the magic bits (like the screen) have some patents, but nothing insurmountable. Just isn't something that OLPC themselves are gonna do.