The New Market Machines

“Reality-Test The Press Release”: Red-Zone B-School Cases in Point

“Wintel Killed the $100 Laptop”

Posted by Colin Brayton on November 24, 2007

The fact that these people need electricity more than they need a laptop is only part of the problem. The real problem is lost mind share. The people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful. –The $100 Laptop: What Went Wrong

A Little Laptop With Big Ambitions (W$J): Or, “the $100 laptop has failed because Wintel ratfinked it.”

See also ABC News, The $100 Laptop Failure:

I have seen a lot of do-gooder projects in Africa, all done with good-hearted intentions by wealthy folks in the developed world, and nearly all have failed. Why? For a number of reasons. A lack of understanding about the local culture, the sheer imperviousness of corrupt local governments, and expectations for a regional infrastructure that doesn’t exist, are just the start. There is also a lack of the long-term commitment that enables these projects to survive past the first rush of enthusiasm by everyone involved, a top-down strategy that doesn’t build the necessary grass roots support, and most of all, a kind of unconscious attitude of charity and pity by rich westerners that is immediately detected by the uneducated, but far from ignorant, recipients.

Another factor to consider: U.S. government support for the thing. It is a sad fact these days that no one is buying what Uncle Sam is selling. We have earned a reputation for peddling snake oil.

I find the story as narrated by the W$J here — it is essentially a martyrdom narrative — kind of peculiar.

… nearly three years later, only about 2,000 students in pilot programs have received computers from the One Laptop project. An order from Uruguay for 100,000 machines appears to be the only solid deal to date with a country, although Mr. Negroponte says he’s on the verge of sealing an order from Peru for 250,000. The first mass-production run, which began this month in China, is for 300,000 laptops, tens of thousands of which are slated to go to U.S. consumers. Mr. Negroponte’s goal of 150 million users by the end of 2008 looks unattainable.

The Peru deal is, in fact, already sealed, according to La República (Lima). See

Mr. Negroponte’s ambitious plan has been derailed, in part, by the power of his idea [?]. For-profit companies threatened by the projected $100 price tag set off at a sprint to develop their own dirt-cheap machines, plunging Mr. Negroponte into unexpected competition against well-known brands such as Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system.

And a fair number of lesser-known brands as well, such as the Mobilis, from India’s Encore.

The stores here in Brazil are full of dirt-cheap, full-size computers now from brands you never heard of before, many of them Chinese.

The processor in the machine is an AMD.

I find this entire analysis really odd. “Unscruplous people stole the idea of making computers cheap enough so that developing nations could afford them!”

Which was that people said “why should we take hand-me-downs when we can develop our own technology, technology that we own, employing our own people, and developing our own knowledge and intellectual property in the process?” See

That, pretty much, is why the Indians say they rejected the thing, then went and developed one of their own.

By this spring, many of Mr. Negroponte’s informal agreements with world leaders to buy millions of laptops appeared to be unraveling.

Informal agreements with politicians have a way of doing that. The same rules apply to the philanthropreneurial sector as to real life: You need to get these things in writing.

The prime minister of Thailand, who backed the project, was removed in a military coup. Nigeria was having second thoughts, in part because of the rising cost of the machine, according to Tomi Davies, who is helping One Laptop in Nigeria. Last month, Intel’s Mr. Barrett visited Nigeria and announced that the company would donate 3,000 Classmates to schools there and would train 150,000 teachers to use computers in the classroom.

We can’t compete. You cannot expect us to. Buy our machine without examining the alternatives.

“We can’t compete,” complains Ayo Kusamotu, One Laptop’s attorney in Nigeria. “The minute we started getting some traction, they [Intel] intensified their effort.” Nigeria recently agreed to purchase 17,000 Intel Classmates.

AMD makes a Classmate as well, I understand (vaguely; I need to catch up on the newsflow). See

The story of the Intel-Negroponte marketing wars is fascinating:

In May, Mr. Negroponte appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and blasted Intel, suggesting it was trying to drive his nonprofit out of business. Intel’s Mr. Barrett called that idea “crazy.” Two months later, Intel announced it was joining One Laptop’s board. The agreement included a “nondisparagement” clause, under which Intel and One Laptop promised not to criticize each other, according to Mr. Negroponte.

Purge:

John Davies, who oversees Classmate sales at Intel, says that after the broadcast, Intel decided to “purge” any marketing material that directly compares the competing laptops. But last month, an Intel representative gave a PowerPoint presentation to a Mongolian official that offered a “head-to-head comparison” between the Classmate and the One Laptop machine. Intel claimed the Classmate prevailed in nine of 13 categories, including processor speed and support for different operating systems, a copy of the presentation indicates.

A lot of the news coverage of the XO, meanwhile, seems to have purged such comparisons as well. The XO is covered in detail, and described routinely as “the famous $100 laptop.” The other alternatives are given fairly short shrift.

Intel’s Mr. Davies says the presentation violated company policy. “Sometimes you get escapees,” he says, adding that he will be doing some “retraining” of the sales staff.

This is kind of astonishing. You mean to say that the two competing projects — in Brazil, they compete, at any rate — agreed not to engage in competitive behavior against one another?

That sounds sort of like getting together and agreeing to restrain competition. You know, like the Treaty of Tordesillos.

When, for example, the Classmate and the XO are currently competing head to head in a Brazilian pilot program, why would you not be out to compare technical performance, price point, pedagogical value, and the like?

I know that is information I would like to have. I like to hear the arguments from both sides on the technical (and educational) merits. These things interest me.

The image “http://i113.photobucket.com/albums/n216/cbrayton/topshop.png?t=1195896262” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Professor Simão Pedro P. Marinho of PUC-MG did up nice slide show on the Brazil UCA pilot programs. Studying.

Because here in Brazil, it certainly has not been for lack of hardball lobbying and pro-XO media exposure that the Kermit-green lunchpail of knowledge has not turned out to be as big as Pokemon.

The mass-market tech press plugged it mercilessly, and to the point of absurdity, really, over its competitors. Embedded lobbyists in the permanent bureaucracy, like Murilo of the MiniC — aka Daniel Duende — pumped it every chance they got.

The government, meanwhile, has displayed a pretty clear preference for full-size laptops without the planned obsolence implict in the fact that the XO, as it is called here — , in demotic Tupi-Portuguguguese, means “shame on you” — can only be operated by people with tiny, tiny fingers. Which is true of the Classmate as well, mind you.

Look at the spec sheets the government here issued for “digital inclusion” machines — that is, machines qualifying for subsidies and tax breaks under that program: Everything has to be full-sized, from the monitor to the keyboard.

Another problem was that the models delivered for testing in the schools did not have all the features advertised. Such as wireless mesh networking.

In its series of “hands on field tests” of the competing models in Brazil, Estadão bends over backward to marvel at features of the XO that do not actually work yet.

Small adaptations were needed in the electronics, as well as the installation of a wireless network, before the machines made it to the schools. The models being tested are the second version of the XO, called the B2. It still has a number of flaws that have been eliminated in version B4, the most recent. It lacks peer-to-peer “mesh” networking, for example.

Some hands-on field test.

It’s like test-driving a VW Beetle 1.0 and then writing a review of the VW Beetle 2.0 — in which, as we know, the lawnmower engine has been replaced with something completely different.

Could delivering a model for testing that did not work, while promising that a later model would, have something to do with the “unraveling of informal arrangements with world leaders”?

The Estadão promises us a real-time user experience report and winds up writing a rave review of a “$100 laptop of the future.” One that costs more than $100.

A key to competing successfully is showing up ready to play.

I actually signed up to buy one of the prototypes, when the project said it would offer them for sale to individuals if 100,000 people pledged to buy them. The project did not get 100,000 takers.

Which was a shame: It certainly is an interesting gizmo, qua gizmo. I am still interested in downloading the live CD and emulating the thing. Or would be if I were addicted to FreeCiv at the moment.

But look, in case you have not noticed, educational technology big digs have run into problems in Latin America, generating scandalous boondoggles.

And the ABC guy is right: technology procurement deals in general have also caused a lot of consternation on this, the other dark continent, as well, and tend to get mired in the mar de lama. For example:

You should just see what Unisys has gotten itself into here over the years.

Add to this the Hobbesian state of nature in which tech competition takes place down here — aided and abetted by a news media that does not formally recognize the difference between journalism and public relations — Hacks are Flacks! Banana-Republican Business Journalism Illustrated — and there you have it.

At any rate, it is official: The W$J also declares the $100 laptop a flop as well. The explanation it gives — a martyrdom narrative, essentially — still makes no sense to me, however. I guess because it certainly seemed to get lobbied for awfully hard.

(The U.S. ambassador here is the Bush Ranger who sold Net2Phone to Cisco a few years back.)

See also Slashdot, The Failure of the $100 Laptop?


Lula and Nicky Blackbridge: “Like Django Reinhardt, I have only three very fat fingers. Will this dinky little thing work for me?” Negroponte: Maybe if you guys ordered more than a measly 65, with a thousand more for later testing — you promised, dude — we can work out some economies of, er, scale.”

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