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Why OLPC Can Never Work

By on Apr 17, 2009 in Food For Thought, Tech Takes | 6 comments

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Guest blogged by Anuj on May 1, 2008.

OLPC is an initiative by MIT, which promises to deliver a laptop for every child in every hamlet for a not so measly cost of $100. Why? In order to help their education, for this they are following 5 principles:

Why It Won’t Work

Creative Commons License photo credit: Mllerustad
Okay, lets see if I understand this. You’re handing out laptops worth $100 to children in rural areas who usually belong to below poverty line families and you’re calling it a cheap solution to education, how? They earn less than a dollar a day, so it would take them more than a 100 days of work to earn enough to buy that laptop, do you think that they’re going to spend 4 months or more than 4 months of pay on a thing like this? Isn’t staying alive more important? So what should they do? Well, there’s always that magical word called the government, ask them to pay it. Now this would mean that valuable public money is being spent on a wild goose chase, which will amount to nothing. So forget the clause about child ownership, it practically cannot exist as at the end of the day someone else will pay for the machine.

Now these laptops come with the ‘Sugar’ user interface which even children can get sick of, the machine specs are so pathetic that they aren’t pretty much good for anything at all, they won’t be able to run any post 1995 software, they have a clock speed of just 433 MHz on an AMD Geode LX-700 which runs at an impressively low 0.8 watts. Now, compare that to the iPhone which runs at about 412 MHz, that’s a phone and it is comparable to that laptop. Are you getting it? These kids have about 1 GB of flash storage. Any good present day software requires more than that. Hell, office will take up more space, it’s good for nothing. The hardware is so minimal, I am surprised that they’re calling it a laptop, I mean it’s a laptop by the standards of 1984, not 2008.

They give a GUI around with this called ‘Sugar’ which is basically more comparable to a conc. solution of H2SO4. It can handle only one task at a time, running two applications simultaneously kills it. It doesn’t a ‘bloated’ interface, so forget the easy to use Leopard, think crap.

Sugar interface for the XO Laptop
Creative Commons License photo credit: ideonexus
So you have hardware that does nothing and software that isn’t any good. Well maybe this stuff is good for the children it has been built for, well, ask yourself, what the hell is the child supposed to do with the laptop? It sure as hell can’t replace a human teacher at this point, it won’t even be a supplement at the end of the day. It will simply gather dust in peoples homes. What do you expect a child to learn, if he doesn’t have any mentor at all to guide her/him? Well, they sure have educational programs on the machine, but who’ll teach the children to use them? Who will give that little concrete base which will help them to start? You know what the OLPC wiki says about this?

The XO laptop will bring a world of new ideas, images, and materials to children around the world. It will also provide students and teachers with new ways to collaborate, create, and transform works over time. Our belief in collaboration as a fundamental part of learning underscores our commitment to editable document formats, revision tracking, and careful attribution of authors and sources.

“How do you expect the child to learn and comprehend “new ideas, images, and materials” when she/he hasn’t understood the old ideas, images, and materials. The regions for which they’re aiming for have an adult population which is, usually, illiterate or with a very low level of education, where will the children learn from? The teachers? Well most of the schools which are therein such areas are virtually non-existent, they have meagre or no staff, whatever staff they do have is usually very incompetent. Are you getting my point? Where will the basic input come from, when will the return come? And how exactly will it come? I can’t see any method except for changing the system to bring back results. In short giving laptops as handouts is not going to solve anything at all.

Creative Commons License photo credit: adriaan bloem
You know what’s the icing on the cake? Incompatibility, they can’t run the widely used formats like .doc (although .rtf is supported), without running into compatibility hassles which I doubt an average 12 year old will be able to solve. Anyway if you find a way to emulate windows on it, what resources will you use? So for all intents and purposes this is completely incompatible with the broader PC environment. So the poor folks went begging to the OLPC guys to ship it with Windows. Nicholas Negropnte, the only guy with some brains in the outfit, agreed. Now the other friktards are going to walk out, that is people are threatening to quite, because the guy is giving them what they want. So that they can actually do something with their craptop, why are they against it? Somehow the free software brigade has morphed it into an issue of freedom, it’s a matter of freedom now that people get what they want? Has Stallman actually looked at what the hell he is selling to the world? I mean who’s freedom is at stake, and how exactly is it at stake?

In short, this was an idea that could only work in the primary schools of a highly industrialized country, not a developing country as the infrastructure to exploit it isn’t there. Oh wait a minute hasn’t Apple already captured that market? So these guys figured that they will have to hoodwink someone else, so the warped this up into a project for the education of the world’s children and started peddling their wares to people who don’t require it. They are better off spending that money getting books, teachers and infrastructure, but heck that was the old fashioned way. They wanted to show the world that they can do something. So they came up with this fancy scheme which can never work, and will never work until a certain basic level of development isn’t there. By that point, I am guessing, they’ll probably be able to afford an iMac.

My advice to the freetards is that ditch this thing and go home and do some Zen meditation or something, maybe go to a good $500 doctor to cure your dementia. My advice to the various governments is, put in money where you need to put in, for heavens sake start acting like a government.


I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.

Albert Hoffman, I hope that you may trip in peace…..


  1. Abhishek Baxi

    April 17, 2009

    Post a Reply

    As much as I am not in favor of the OLPC project, there is factual incorrectness in the post.

    OLPC aimed at ‘giving away’ laptops to the children by involving non-profits and individual donors. There was a scheme where you can buy one for $200, you get one and the other goes to a child.

    The children would never buy laptops… the governments might, but the target was non-profits.

    • Ankur

      April 17, 2009

      Post a Reply

      That was just a promotional scheme – the Buy One Send One offer – and it was a limited time offer at that. Personally, I support the OLPC project. This post was written by a friend who doesn’t blog now.

      I support OLPC, except for the ‘child ownership’ clause. For governments to buy OLPC for each and every kid in each and every batch is a huge recurring investment. Instead, OLPC ownership should belong to the school. Say, one OLPC for 3 kids, and it stays with the school. Yes, they’ll have to change the name from ‘OLPC’ – but it makes much more sense.

  2. Aditya

    April 17, 2009

    Post a Reply

    Extremely well written post. Good job!
    I figured out that first paragraph myself, when I learnt about that in Social Studies last year in 9th grade. That incompatibiity wins the battle, though. Who writes stuff in RTF? Even .doc will be over soon, and .docx will take over (or Open Document Format).
    Also, have you used the OLPC? It’ll be great if we have a hands-on experience.

    • Ankur

      April 17, 2009

      Post a Reply

      Nope, haven’t used OLPC. Indian government decided not to join the OLPC project, but I think Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group did a pilot project in Maharashtra in some school. Children didn’t own the OLPC, it was made school property.

      One ‘explanation’ that gets thrown around a lot is that “But if they buy a laptop, then the kids won’t have to buy books. They can read everything on OLPC. Savings in the long run”. They’re frankly not aware of ground realities in rural India or other countries where they want to push OLPCs. Texbooks needed over the lifetime of a kid in school cost much less than an OLPC, so this point is completely invalid.

      • Vishesh

        April 18, 2009

        Textbooks needed over a lifetime are definitely costlier than a 100$. I can tell you, I’ve payed more than that in something like 7 yrs of my 16 years-at-least study period. In terms of cost, and some other (read: symbolic-environmental) factors, the OLPC might actually be better. Not that I support it. It is pretty absurd, from a sensible point of view – we feel freaked out when we hear first graders who weren’t able to hold a pen because they were too used to holding a mouse. If they didn’t use pens, it might just hurt our cognitive, and basic life skills! Though also, I do think there will be a time when OLPC and better stuff shall be trivial. It’s silly to call something just a slated-out stupid thing. Everything has its pros and cons. And its pointless to argue.
        Change is constant, and necessary. We need to accept that. Even change for the worse.

      • Ankur

        April 18, 2009

        OLPC is obviously targetted towards primary to middle school, and not high school. Moreover, people in rural areas don’t use textbooks from private publishers – and I’m sure a significant part of your budget went into those ones. Students also don’t pay for books, the government gives them books printed by the government. When you buy an NCERT book, NCERT is making a profit – actually, it’s subsidising the cost of printed books for less fortunate ones. Therefore, the actual cost incurred by the government for giving plain textbooks is MUCH lower than giving an OLPC.


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