Rough Going on the Way to a $100 Laptop

The former president of the One Laptop Per Child project stepped down from his position earlier this week as the non-profit continues restructuring and faces competition from the private sector.

Walter Bender directed the MIT Media Lab for six years before joining Nicholas Negroponte’s OLPC project in 2006.

Negroponte, who cofounded the Media Lab in 1985, has overseen the “$100 laptop” project since its inception; however, three executives — including Bender — have left the organization since December 2007.

Going His Own Way

While speculation about the motive for the most recent departure has filled the blogosphere, Bender said his decision was based upon a divergent — but complimentary — goal.

“My personal interest is in helping build a community of developers, educators, and learners dedicated to advancing the quality of free and open source software for learning and the sharing of pedagogical approaches in this community by adopting the spirit and methodology of the open source movement,” Bender said in a listserv posting about his departure.

Bender went on to say that he views his departure as an opportunity to “broaden the reach of the software and pedagogy” while continuing to work with the OLPC team.

Low-Cost Competition

The recent turmoil and restructuring at the OLPC has been less about philosophies — many original members believed open source software should be used exclusively, a view that others within the group don’t necessarily share — and more about realities.

There are large market forces pushing the non-profit. Low-cost computers, referred to as “netbooks,” have come to market. Companies such as Acer now sell cheap PCs, while the Asus Eee PC and the Intel Classmate computer are now available as well.

Negroponte saw the danger low-cost, commercial computing posed to the OLPC project last year when he referred to Intel’s decision to drop out of the project — only to reemerge with the Classmate computer — as “predatory” during a “60 Minutes” interview.

His instincts have proven correct, as commercialization has become a problem for OLPC and other non-profit organizations trying to create a supply of computers for a growing market, John Whaley, cofounder of MokaFive, a desktop virtualization software company, told LinuxInsider.

Emerging Competition

The commercial, low-cost computers represent an easy way for Microsoft, Intel and other computing companies to expand their market share.

Counterintuitively, the open source operating system the OLPC laptop used, Sugar, became less appealing once the price of the hardware and proprietary software such as Windows dropped.

“There were a number of issues that lead to these problems, but a big one was potential customers felt ‘why invest in some unique educational platform with no practical usage?'” said Whaley. “People didn’t see the connection between being fluent in Sugar and future opportunities in the global economy.”

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