Why and How OLPC Got Reamed: Negroponte's Dreams Stolen and Crushed

The WSJ basically pulverizes the OLPC project in an exquisitely detailed piece laying out its trials and tribulations. Its thesis is that the idea—cheap laptops for everyone—is so damn good that everyone else built their own uber-cheap laptops, thrusting OLPC into cutthroat competition. Result? Countries and school systems are buying cheap computers, just not the XO laptop. That's not so bad. It's the details that are fucking brutal.

To date, only 2,000 students have gotten their XO Laptop, and Uruguay's the only solid national deal with 100,000 ordered. Nicholas Negroponte says Peru's on the hook for 250,000, but we know how that's gone. And less than 300,000 will be pumped out of Taiwan by the end of this year. At most, 1 million a month will roll off of conveyor belts next year. The WSJ's penchant for understatement is comically beautiful here: "Mr. Negroponte's goal of 150 million users by the end of 2008 looks unattainable."

So what gives? The non-$100 pricepoint—caused in part by the smaller volume produced— and the lack of Windows. Consequently, Intel's Classmate, for one, is killing them. After the price climbed over $100, Libya, Nigeria and Pakistan went with Classmate, in part because it runs Windows XP. Libya's technical advisory committee chair said flatly: "The Intel machine is a lot better than the OLPC. I don't want my country to be a junkyard for these machines." It bought 150,000 Classmates. Russia's buying a "low-cost" laptop from Asus (presumably the Eee) to lojack with $3 Windows that Microsoft's offering bootleg-prone countries.

Given the hostile, competitive world market, "Mr. Negroponte has abandoned his initial strategy of trying to persuade a half-dozen developing countries...to buy one million laptops each." So we're seeing them in our own Third World backyard and being given longer to give one and get one. The official numbers for the first nine days, btw, are 45,000 laptop pairs. While impressive, it's a far cry, even with those sold to Peru, Uruguay and school systems thrown in, from the expected "initial orders of five million to eight million."

Still, Negroponte sounds surprisingly gracious and hopefully sincere in his sentiment that

"From my point of view, if the world were to have 30 million" laptops made by competitors "in the hands of children at the end of next year, that to me would be a great success," he said in a recent interview. "My goal is not selling laptops. OLPC is not in the laptop business. It's in the education business."

Even if it's not necessarily XO laptops under kids' fingers, at least he can take credit for helping whatever's there get there, which is pretty awesome however you slice it. [WSJ via FSJ]