I’ve long been in two-minds about the OLPC project. As a source of technical innovation, the XO-1 laptop has been a sensation; from mesh networking, clever power management to the dual-mode screen and the Sugar interface, Yves Behar‘s iconic green design has distilled some of the best-in-class electronics into a unique product. Indeed, the price point has enabled companies such as Intel to see low-cost portables as a viable and attactive market for their products.
After meeting Lee Felsenstein (during a midnight munchies session at Foo Camp 2006!) and understanding his concerns about the educational and social model of the OLPC Foundation, I’ve been less enthused about the educational philosophy of the project. Without understanding in great depth the needs of communities in the developing world – and the exclusion of adult empowerment – OLPC was guided by governments, not the consiutuents of the communities it sought to help.
Recently, the OLPC movement has begun to fragment with the launch of Mary Lou Jepsen‘s display technologies startup, Pixel Qi and Walter Bender‘s Sugar Labs, focussing on continuing the development of OLPC’s operating system.
With last week’s announcment of the XOXO – a $75 replacement for the XO-1, targetted for 2010 – it seems that the departure of Jepsen and Bender, coupled with OLPC’s embrace of Microsoft signals a change in phiosophy for the foundation…as a concept design house. By explicitly encouraging others to copy the XOXO’s design, the foundation is codifying its role in generating design capital and encouraging imitation of the sort that previously lost the foundation powerful allies such as Intel.
Though Negroponte is still persuing the educational goals of the foundation, perhaps they can avoid previous controversies and conficts by explicitly playing the role of a concept and design organisation, helping to set a vision but enabling more capable and trusted organisations to bring it to life.