Making nice and making laptops

One of the more embarrasing fights in the technical community the past couple of years has been between Intel and the team behind One Laptop Per Child. AMD, Intel’s fierce rival, has been a partner in the OLPC effort from very early on, and the XO machine is based on AMD’s low-power CPUs. Intel announced an effort to compete with the OLPC effort, a fairly conventional laptop design called the “Classmate” which runs a lightweight version of Windows on a flash RAM hard drive. OLPC’s design is much more radical in hardware terms, using a novel type of display and some complex power management techniques, and runs on a version of Red Hat Linux with a novel windows manager, Sugar.

So far, so good. But the two camps have been sniping at each other for months now. Intel Chairman Craig Barrett dismissed the OLPC machine as “a gadget”, arguing that educators wanted a PC that ran conventional software. Nicholas Negroponte responded by questioning Barrett’s motives for building an educational machine and characterized Intel’s efforts to question the OLPC XO design as damaging OLPC’s efforts, suggesting that Intel “should be ashamed of itself.

Ouch. One wonders what Barrett and Negroponte said to each other to make nice. Last night Intel announced that it was joining the board of the OLPC project and contributing funds to the organization.

This isn’t quite as wacky as it sounds. Negroponte has long said that he would support any strategy that put full-functioned machines into the hands of all the world’s schoolchildren. Intel backers have argued that there will likely need to be multiple designs to meet the needs of various school-age populations. So perhaps we’ll see continued work on both the Classmate and on the XO…

The Classmate looks and feels much more like a conventional PC than the OLPC machine… but it leaves some interesting questions about its suitability for developing world environments. (The use of a traditional flat-panel display suggests that its power requirements are going to be much closer to those of a traditional laptop than the OLPC device.) It has a faster processor and more memory, but it also seems to be missing pieces, like an integrated wifi system. It’s been somewhat slower out of the gate… and, frankly, it looks like the bastard child of a laptop and a handbag. I saw one for the first time at a World Economic Forum meeting in Cape Town a few weeks back and wasn’t impressed. Nor was I impressed that the Intel PR guy handling the machine didn’t have an answer to how long the battery life of the machine was (a critical detail, given the challenges of provisioning power in the developing world) and demanded to know who I was and who I was working for when I asked my second technical question…

(I don’t have a fair technical comparison between the two machines. I’ve spent much more time playing with the XO, and I’m biased based on my fondness for people actively working on the XO machine. And some other reviews have been basically positive.)

Anyway. The tech community is having fun talking about the recent detente. SJ Klein, who works on the content side of the OLPC project titled his blog post “Intel and OLPC trade in noogies for neckrubs“. Gizmodo observed “Hell Freezes Over“. I’m not sure I have a clever blogpost title to offer, but I will offer this thought: this is a huge vote of confidence in the work OLPC is doing. The project has huge hurdles to overcome, but having Intel assisting, rather than throwing obstacles in OLPC’s path is an excellent step forward.

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One Response to Making nice and making laptops

  1. quixote says:

    Let’s hope Intel really is doing this in the spirit of cooperation, and not just so they can be the first to know about developments coming down the pike. Beware of Intel/Gates bearing gifts!

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