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Foreign Aid & Civil Society

The OLPC (should be) Dead, Let Live the Aakash

Engadget and a number of other technology blogs are rife with coverage of the imminent launch of the OLPC XO 3 tablet at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) starting today. Unfortunately, this attention to this third iteration of the 100-dollar-computer-that-never-was could not be more misdirected and misses the real story – that technology has moved on from the OLPC and will evolve even faster in the future.

Over at the WSJ’s Speakeasy blog is a story much more relevant to technology for the masses – about the Aakash Ubislate 7+. This 7-inch table runs Android, has support for 2.5G GPRS and wifi (the OLPC did not have both), is currently shipping, and one month after launch has pre-orders for over 2 million units – essentially more than the OLPC has delivered in its either 6+ year lifetime.

This obsession with a project that failed long ago is unhealthy for a number of reasons.

First, it encourages the disc0nnect between the real world and the development community – represented by the OLPC organization and those that comment on it. Much of this community believes it knows best how to help the poor and what technology developing countries deserve. Meanwhile, the poor (or the aspiring middle class in this case), are busy helping themselves to technology that is good enough.

Second, (and this doesn’t happen often), it vindicates a decision taken by the Indian government years ago to refuse rolling out the OLPC in India. Back then critics claimed India was reinforcing the digital divide amongst its citizens. In hindsight, it seems, the Indian government may have saved the taxpayer billions and seems to have had a better grasp of how to incentivize the private sector to deliver a more functional product for less. This is a useful lessons to governments – if they must support such initiatives it is not by subsidizing purchases but by ensuring a large enough market exists for the private sector to do what it does best.

Finally, and perhaps most important, it allows Mr. Negroponte to hog more money and media attention. The founder of the OLPC has a long history of failing to achieve his own constantly downsized objectives. The OLPC  has  captured the attention of millions of do-gooders in its lifetime and has helped raise the profile of many. But even if it now reaches the USD 100 target, lower priced alternatives already exist.

In any darwinian system, a project that failed so completely and spectacularly would have been shuttered long ago. So it is a sad commentary on the non-profit sector that the OLPC plods along. It is time this relic too went the way of the dinosaur.

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Discussion

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  1. I think it is premature to dismiss OLPC and at the same time hype Aakash as a success. The initial Aakash tablets were just unusable. And now they have pre-orders for a more expensive version. Delivering good quality tablets is not an easy problem.
    We need to wait and see how this pans out. That the Indian govt refused to buy into OLPC has probably less to do with the merits of OLPC and more to do with political factors. They would rather pick their supplier than rely on some third party.

    Posted by Rakesh | January 9, 2012, 3:32 pm
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