OLPC introduces the social computer
by Josh Bernoff
I got briefed Friday, along with other analysts and reporters, on Nicholas Negroponte's OLPC (one laptop per child) initiative. This has been covered in some detail by the Boston Globe and AP/Yahoo. Jupiter's Michael Gartenberg, who sat next to me, has his commentary here. Here's what I wrote after interviewing Negroponte at the Forrester Digital Consumer Forum last year.
Before I get into the social aspects of the machine (it's called the XO) and why it could change everything, you should know a few things that make this machine unique. First, nearly every element of the OS is open-source, from Linux to the apps. Second, it's designed for use in the most adverse conditions, where electricity can come from a hand-powered adapter or a $10 solar panel. And third, it's distributed in a completely unique way. There is no distribution cost, there is no profit (at least for OLPC itself). A country like Libya orders a million units, and Citibank handles the financing and letters of credit, acquiring the money and distributing it to every member of the supply chain, from Quanta that's assembling it to AMD that's making the processors.
This is the make-or-break time for OLPC. Negroponte and his team have been flying to all parts of the world and hosting countries in Cambridge, Mass., hoping to get to the 3 million units in commitments needed to get the supply chain cranking for delivery in the second half of 2007. Critics and naysayers are buzzing, especially since the price has gone up from the nominal $100 at the launch to $176 now. Microsoft has hit back with $3 pricing for Windows and apps in the developing world, and Intel has produced its own low-cost PC, the ClassMate, for these markets.
But what's on my mind is this: what if OLPC succeeds?
The XO laptop is designed for social computing. It is the social computer. One of the main apps is a screen that shows who else in the village is online -- in fact, the whole system gets its Internet access from a mesh so that if one XO in the village can reach the net (presumably from a classroom or some other central location, often by satellite), the others can all reach it too through their own connections. Every single app is designed for sharing, so you and you friends can work on a project together -- a book, a blog, a picture -- and then come back to it and work more later. All of your work is backed up to a Google server.
Now imagine 500 million kids in the poorest parts of the world, all of whom are learning that computers mean social. People say today's Millennials in developed countries have internalized the connected Web-based world in way us old fogies can't understand, but these OLPC kids are going to make even that experience look positively 20th century. Everything they need, they'll get from each other -- news, software, a window on the world. If the next Linus Torvalds is in Nigeria somewhere, she can change the world with a new open-source breakthrough for creative collaboration, or gaming simulations, or political organizing -- and some kid in Brazil will debug it. There will be no more boundaries.
I'm looking forward to learning the true meaning of social computing from children around the world. I just hope they get the chance to show me.