User:Michael de la Maza/BWD

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OLPC: Not Better, Not Worse – Different

Michael de la Maza 19:13, 24 August 2006 (EDT)

Stuff that is cheap is typically not as nice as stuff that is expensive. The OLPC is a notable exception to this dictum and this has confused many otherwise bright people.

Bill Gates and Craig Barrett have both mocked the OLPC and countless bloggers have questioned the utility of a computer that costs only $100.

It’s phone-like features (1Km WiFi, instant on, portability) combine with computer-like features (storage capacity and processing power) to create a device that is radically different from both cellphones and laptops. The OLPC is not so much an advance in technology as it is an advance in functionality for a particular user base. Anyone who compares the OLPC to a laptop or a cellphone is making the grave mistake of confusing technology and functionality. From a technical perspective these devices are (arguably) comparable, but from a functional perspective they are radically different.

In his recent speech at the TED conference, Nicholas Negroponte noted that the OLPC brought back memories of the Mac 512, a computer that changed the universe of computer users. By converting non-computer users into computer users, the Mac 512 uncovered a vast sea of enthusiasm and energy for digital devices. But the pioneering Mac 512 users did not care about technology, they cared about functionality. Small changes in technology created a huge change in functionality for an extraordinarily large set of human beings.

The OLPC is not better than a laptop and it’s not worse. The OLPC is not better than a cellphone and it’s not worse. It’s just different. And that difference makes it radically better for its intended audience in a way that its detractors have not fully appreciated.