OLPC Faces Growing Competition, And That's A Good Thing

from the like-it-or-not dept

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting story looking at the rise of dirt-cheap laptops and the potential impact these laptops will have in developing countries. It gives a fair amount of attention to the One Laptop Per Child project, which was obviously one of the early players in this space. I’ve had my share of criticisms of the OLPC project, but one thing I do have to give them credit for is that their XO laptop seems to be very competitive with the laptops being offered by commercial companies. Most of them, such as the Asus Eee PC, are priced in the $299 to $399 range; it appears that no one has yet figured out how to produce a full-featured laptop at that magic $100 price point. The thing this article does highlight, though, is that OLPC is operating in an increasingly competitive market. OLPC head Nicholas Negroponte says “I don’t want to compete with anyone,” but he’s going to have to compete whether he likes it or not.

One of the most intriguing competitors is Ncomputing, which is trying to resurrect the dumb terminal model for people on a shoestring budget. Ncomputing uses a cheap ($350) PC as a server to drive a bunch of ridiculously cheap ($70) terminals. Dumb terminals are almost as old as the computing industry itself, but getting the terminals to be this cheap certainly opens things up to new markets by bringing hardware costs within reach of that magic $100 price point. Of course, these dumb terminals won’t be as portable as an XO laptop, and they likely require more tech support. Schools in developing countries will have to weigh those disadvantages against the XO’s higher price and decide what will serve their students best. And that’s the way it should be: more competition means that end users will be able to choose the computing solution that best fits their unique circumstances and budget.

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Companies: asus, ncomputing, olpc

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Comments on “OLPC Faces Growing Competition, And That's A Good Thing”

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chris (profile) says:

new uses for cheap low power computers

cheap desktops like those from everex or even super low end terminals like gumstix as well as eee clones will make computing more ubiquitous. because the cost less to acquire and less o run, you can afford more of them. cheap, low powered, super small computers have a number of uses besides developing nations:

1) how many of us leave our PCs running 24×7? do they do something when you aren’t there (like seti or boinc) or are we all just too impatient to wait for them to boot up? a cheap low power computer for surfing/email/chat could save on electricity and wear and tear (from heat) on your sweet gaming or development rig.

2) what would you do if you lost your laptop? a cheap laptop is easier to replace, so you might take it places you never thought, like on vacation or out of the country.

3) do you share a computer with a spouse, sibling, or child? a couple of cheap computers and a gaming console mean everyone can work and play at pretty much the same time, often for the price of one fancy laptop.

4) cheap dumb terminals and laptops mean more people can be mobile without the cost and risk of traditional laptops. thin clients are good choices for conference rooms, front desks, hospitals and cash registers where relatively large numbers of people do the same or similar things, but not always at the same workstation.

5) centrally stored data is easier to secure and maintain. sensitive materials spread out on laptops and USB keys are the main reasons for these high profile data leaks. cheap laptops and terminals can be configured for encrypted connections (citrix, https/ssl, ssh, rdp) to trusted servers without storing sensitive data on local hard drives.

6) centralized applications are easier to secure and maintain. traditional workstations and laptops need software updates that may or may not get applied, especially on laptops that have intermittent or slow connections to the corporate network. cheap terminals and laptops with simple configurations may not need as many critical updates as full fledged workstations since most of the applications needed could be run from central application servers or websites.

7) traditional or high end PCs will always be needed for CPU intensive tasks like gaming, development, media editing, simulation, and engineering applications like CAD. these systems require sophisticated software, specialty hardware, and need to be highly tuned for their intended task. wouldn’t it be awful if that high performance machine was messed up with an email virus or some corporate mandated application update that had nothing to do with it’s intended task? it would be better to have a cheap machine(or maybe a virtual machine or even a terminal session) with a simple config for your “office stuff” like email, web surfing, and documents and leave your high end machine for “serious work”.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

Open-Source Rules

An important point about these machines is that, if you try to put Microsoft Windows on them, it instantly becomes the single most expensive item on the bill of materials. Not to mention that they are simply too underpowered to run Windows Vista, so it has to be XP or no Windows at all.

This situation has been giving senior management at Microsoft sleepless nights, because they want to get rid of XP and push everyone onto Vista, but then that would mean ceding this entire new low-end market to Linux. So they’ve decided on an unsatisfactory compromise, where XP Pro will be discontinued after June, while XP Home will continue to be available, but only on these cheap machines.

And they’re hoping like hell these machines won’t catch on with businesses…

KD says:

OLPC is in a class by itself

The thing that few people seem to realize is that the OLPC project is NOT about providing computing to students in developing countries. It is about providing better education to students in developing countries.

The “competing” relatively inexpensive computers, at least all of them that I have read about, are just traditional PCs or laptop computers, done on the cheap. The OLPC project provides a hardware/software system designed from the ground up to solve some of the education problems that students and teachers in developing countries have been suffering with for many years. The cheap traditional computers don’t do anything to address those problems, and so, from my point of view, are nonsolutions. They could be free and they’d still not be better than the OLPC system.

I think most people don’t understand that.

The OLPC system isn’t perfect, by any means, but it is pretty good, even in its early forms, and the results from their trial deployments have been very good.

If the manufacturers of the other cheap computers really want to compete with OLPC, they need to devise effective ways of improving education in developing countries, not just cost-reduce some hardware. But maybe they are aiming at a different market — the market for cheap, traditional computers. In that case, they really are not competing with OLPC.

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