The Unintended Consequences of OLPC

classmateolpc.gifThings aren’t going terribly well for the “One Laptop Per Child” project, reports The Wall Street Journal. The project, which started as a noble effort to educate the children of poor nations via $100 laptops computers, has run into stiff competition from the likes of Intel (INTC), which is using its overseas sales force to aggressively push its Classmate device, which sells for between $230 and $300 dollars.
What really caught my eye in the piece was the fact that during the first two days of the OLPC’s promotional effort — buy one and give one laptop — nearly 45,000 devices were ordered, mostly from the U.S. That clearly indicates that OLPC has elicited a lot of interest amongst the PC-toting masses. My anecdotal observation is backed by recent search trends.

And why not? Many of the laptops already on the market are now dubbed “notebooks” or “portable computers.” You can’t put them in your lap, because they give off more than enough heat to keep a New Yorker warm on a cold, brisk winter evening and are heavy enough to cause serious lumbar damage. And by golly, if you do decide to buy a lightweight machine, then your bank account is left feeling like an anorexic. A nation of laptop-totting workaholics needs something…better.This interest in OLPC can be loosely explained by buyers’ desire for a simpler, lighter, and less complicated, computing experience that offers connectivity and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. This is good news for device makers like Nokia (NOK) and Asus, both of whom recently started selling cheap Internet-connected devices.
Let’s call them, for lack of a better description, Cloud Client Computers (CCC). This trend for a simpler, connected computer can’t be good news for Intel (INTC), however, which makes a lot of money selling expensive chips for either desktop or laptop computers. If the cheap Classmate can run Windows XP (or Linux) and do most of the tasks we typically do on a laptop while on the go, why would anybody want to splurge on an expensive “portable computer?”Intel might have launched the Classmate to stunt the popularity of OLPC, but it may have also unintentionally showed us a better way of mobile computing. Creating market demand in more developed countries is not necessarily a bad thing – demand like that will result in the volume needed to lower prices – which will ultimately help OPLC’s original vision.