Intel Washes Hands of OLPC Project

Intel has reportedly pulled out of its position on the board of directors for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project due to disagreements over philosophical issues.

OLPC is a nonprofit educational organization working to put low-cost laptops into the hands of children in economically-challenged countries around the world.

Neither Intel nor OLPC immediately responded to LinuxInsider inquiries, but the move may not appear surprising given the sometimes stormy relationships between the two entities.

Competition + Cooperation = Coopetition?

The OLPC project is the brainchild of founder and Chairman Nicholas Negroponte, currently on leave from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was professor and a cofounder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory. He’s a passionate personality who’s sparred openly with Intel’s chairman, Craig Barrett. Barrett has a competing product aimed at children in developing areas of the world: the Classmate PC, which is based on Intel processors.

OLPC’s solution, the XO, is a Linux-based laptop currently running a processor produced by Intel rival AMD, the AMD Geode LX-700.

The XO costs about US$200 — double its originally projected price of $100 — while the Classmate sells for about $300. Both Intel and OLPC have been working at odds to sell their solutions to developing nations, sometimes competing directly with one another for sales.

When Intel joined the OLPC board this summer, the move was widely seen as positive for the greater good: Intel would work with OLPC by producing a new low-power processor, which would let both parties win. Kids would still get OLPC XO laptops, albeit a second-generation version, while Intel would forge relationships in developing countries that would help it sell Intel processors.

‘Pack the Bags — We’re Going Home’

When Intel quit the OLPC on Thursday, the move wasn’t particularly surprising to Wayan Vota, editor of the independent OLPC News organization.

“I’m only surprised the honeymoon period lasted this long,” Vota told LinuxInsider.

“You’ve had two groups with completely different goals in mind. You have OLPC, and their goal is to change education, and you have Intel’s goal, which is to sell Intel chips — everything else is secondary,” he continued.

“When OLPC looks at Intel, they think, ‘Here’s a company that can help us get laptops into the hands of children to change education,’ and Intel looks at OLPC and says, ‘Why aren’t they using Intel chips right now?'” he explained, noting that Intel couldn’t accept the concept of AMD-based laptops shipping in the near term while Intel-based computers would ship out in the long-term.

“Intel lives on a quarterly basis. Long-term for them is … March 30,” Vota said. “You may laugh, but the guys at Intel are judged on a quarterly basis. If you don’t make March 30 [numbers], you might be part of the 10 percent that gets cut every year.”

For Us or Against Us

Vota attributes the latest brouhaha to mismatched mindsets.

“OLPC says, ‘Stop selling Classmate, and stop supporting all other low-cost laptops,'” he explained. “And Intel looks at OLPC kind of like OLPC is drunk, and says, ‘Why you talking crazy talk? Let’s work together on an XO 2, but we’re going to compete and sell as many Intel processors as we can, period — yours is just another platform we want to sell on.'”

While some might be quick to point to Intel as the big corporate bad guy in this situation, the OLPC may also be blinded by its own ivory tower. “The nonprofit reality check is that for-profit companies need to make a profit so they can donate to nonprofits so they can make the world a better place,” Vota noted.

Part of the problem, of course, is cost and energy. The Classmate costs more, which means it’s immediately seen as a less likely choice for children in developing nations. Plus, the Classmate is more power-hungry — it only gets about four hours between charges, while the XO gets a mind-blowing nine hours or more. To add fuel to the fire, the XO is generally more rugged and more likely to survive abuse in tough environments.

So, how could Intel possibly push an inferior product? That, perhaps, is the gist of the breakup. Incidentally, Vota noted, Intel doesn’t seem to really care which operating system — Linux, Windows, or otherwise — runs on the Classmate.

Still, the Kids May Win

“Interestingly enough, I don’t think OLPC has made Intel an enemy,” Vota said.

“I think it will essentially go back to May of this year, where we had a very strong, open competitive environment. And to some extent, I think having Intel as a competitor will improve OLPC,” he added.

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