Is OLPC Putting a Band-Aid on a Gaping Wound?

What does the sitcom “Seinfeld” have to do with One Laptop per Child (OLPC), the project aiming to distribute inexpensive notebook computers to the impoverished, third-world children?

Not much, except for the fact that two critics of OLPC — Linspire President and CEO Kevin Carmony and company Chairman Michael Robertson — refer to an episode of the show when discussing OLPC. They say there are parallels between OLPC and the 1997 Seinfeld installment “The Muffin Tops.”

“It reminds me of a classic Seinfeld episode where Elaine has an idea for a bakery to sell only the tops of muffins,” wrote Robertson two years ago in an online newsletter. “In a magnanimous gesture, she decides to donate the bottom halves to the local homeless shelter.”

The idea hits a snag when a woman from the shelter approaches Elaine to inform her the homeless are complaining that they only have “muffin stumps.”

All They Deserve

To Carmony and Robertson, the parallels between the show and OLPC are clear. “Well-intentioned advocates are offering a muffin stump of a computer to the “digital homeless,” insisted Robertson in his newsletter. “Those with the top-of-the-muffin computers are expecting others to be satisfied with just e-mail and other lightweight tasks.”

Although Robertson’s entry was penned two years ago, and OLPC has made strides since then, Carmony is still convinced the project is misguided, and he continues to use the muffin stump analogy when discussing it.

“It’s the notion that you can go to a third-world country and give them the muffin stumps,” he told LinuxInsider. “That’s how we feel about these computers. They are so limited and so restricted as to what they can do, they’re not going to have much value.”

Originally billed as the “(US)$100 laptop,” the novel notebooks designed for the OLPC effort are now going to cost about $140. Quanta Computer, a Chinese company that is building the devices, said it received an order last month for the first million, but it remains unclear which nation placed the order.

At the helm of the project is energetic Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab researcher Nicholas Negroponte, who discounts skeptics as being shortsighted, unimaginative or just wrong. Some major corporations, including Google and Red Hat have invested in OLPC while others, such as Intel and Microsoft, have criticized it.

Larger Questions

The small, bright green laptops run on a special type of Linux and consume very little power, largely due to their use of flash memory and a new type of monitor. They come with wireless Internet connectivity and video cameras.

OLPC aims to distribute 500 million units within five years to kids in undeveloped and developing nations. Negroponte has said he believes the project has the ability to bring a computer to every child on the planet in a decade.

The plan calls for governments of the targeted countries to buy the units and distribute them. What’s less clear is how the other parts of the plan will come together — the pupil training, the equipment repair and other pieces of implementation including Internet access.

“OLPC is working with schools to saturate each location as they deploy machines,” says the OLPC Wiki Web site. “This solves several problems (jealousy, in-fighting, unequal opportunity to education) but also allows for optimal mesh conditions. Each school is working to have Internet access of some capacity, and school servers. The server will function as a gateway/proxy for many Internet services … and as a beacon for Internet connectivity sharing.”

That sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky to Wayan Vota, editor of One Laptop per Child News. “Negroponte says they will have Internet connection somehow, but the reality of Internet connectivity in the developing world is that it’s very case-specific,” Vota told LinuxInsider. “In Brazil it’s cheap, but in Mali it’s very expensive.”

Groundbreaking Design

Although Intel President Craig Barret called the laptop a cheap “gadget” and Microsoft’s Bill Gates said, “Geez, get a real computer,” the OLPC team has been praised by Vota and others for the innovative technology used to make the little “XO” device.

“The technology is a revolutionary step in laptop design and I’ve said many times that I find the technology to be clock-stopping hot,” said Vota. “It’s paradigm-shifting technology.”

OLPC is a “laudable” endeavor, Mukul Krishna, global manager of Frost and Sullivan’s digital media practice, told LinuxInsider. He remains skeptical, however, particularly about the ability of the poor nations to provide the training and other infrastructure.

“Somebody has to be paid for all that training,” he explained. “It’s a great idea and maybe, in terms of execution, the strategies are going to evolve. But it’s not as simple as saying it’s $130 per child. It’s way more than that.”

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