Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Innovation Cycle and OLPC's "Children's Machine"

In a previous post I evaluated the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. I think the intentions are great, but I ask: is the intended market ready for the technology; equipped to absorb it? My impression is that OLPC has probably picked the wrong "Lead Users." As has happened with countless other technological innovations, Children's Machine may well succeed, but not in the market (i.e. classrooms) for which it was originally intended. At least not initially. For example, I wonder if the Children's Machine might not be more likely to succeed -- as an innovation -- if the laptops were put into the hands of college-age students from developing countries.

The best early adopters are probably not young schoolchildren in developing countries. That's not to say that such students won't benefit from this new laptop in the future. There's every chance they will eventually. But I think that the folks at OLPC are trying to do too very difficult things at once: they are attempting to prove a technology and create a new market simultaneously. Entrepreneurs occasionally achieve victory on both fronts simultaneously -- inventing a technology and creating a market, but usually they only succeed if they are prepared to be very flexible on the second point. Those people who become the most passionate early users of a novel innovation are rarely the consumers the entrepreneur originally had in mind. But assuming entrepreneurs are flexible in their approach to the market, some new products at least have a fighting chance to capture new markets. OLPC, however, appear totally unwilling to compromise on the vital second point: any alternative market for their Children's Machine is a "black market." I refer you this paper that explores the role of the consumer in creative innovation.

The Economic Critique of OLPC
David Henderson wrote an economic critique of OLPC. Henderson shares my concerns about the impact of corruption on the OLPC project; he makes a similar argument using economic terms:
Would people in poor countries buy $100 laptops out of their own money? Some of them would (. . .) Many people in those poor countries (. . . ) would prefer to spend $100 on other items -- food, iodine pills for water, DDT, basic generic drugs, maybe a sewing machine. (. . . ) Possibly, Negroponte will be able to persuade Bill Gates or others to cough up many of the funds. But the vast majority of the funds for this $100-apiece purchase are likely to come from the governments of poor countries (. . . ) So what started "off as a completely innocent, let's-help-the-poor-in-poor-countries proposal will end up, with government involved, as just one more way of government using force against its own people to buy goods for them that they regard as luxuries, preventing them from buying the goods that they need to make it to next year. That's a tragedy. And if Negroponte rethinks his strategy, it's a tragedy he can help avoid.
Essentially, that's quite close to the argument I made in the previous post. Henderson also writes:
As development economist Jeffrey Sachs used to recognize, poor countries tend to have governments with a lot of power (see his "Growth in Africa: It Can Be Done," The Economist, June 29, 1996, pp. 19-21). That's one main reason they remain poor. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in his classic cautionary book, The Road to Serfdom, in countries where governments have a lot of power, the worst tend to get on top. Thus, the powerful bureaucrat who is charged with distributing the computers is not likely to be a particularly ethical or caring person, as maintaining his power is more important to him than raising his people out of poverty. In fact, this bureaucrat is likely to give the computers to his friends or to others who are politically powerful. In many countries, he may even try to sell them.
If the term "where governments have a lot of power" was rephrased to "where individuals holding government posts have a lot of power" I could would agree: It's not that governments in poor countries are "powerful" -- such governments are far weaker than their Western counterparts (they don't really govern very much) -- but that the individuals who occupy government posts are essentially "above the law," and hence certain government ministers and officials are "more powerful."

India Backs out of OLPC
According to this news story, India has just announced that it has backed out of the OLPC scheme:
India has decided not to participate in Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, which was organized to provide children and educators in developing countries with a simple-to-use computer that would cost around $100, The Hindu reports.

India’s Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry called Negroponte’s project “pedagogically suspect,” and said its money would be better spent on secondary education, according to The Hindu.

“The case for giving a computer to every single [person] is pedagogically suspect,” wrote Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee in a letter to India’s planning commission, according to The Hindu. “It may actually be detrimental to the growth of creative and analytical abilities of the child.

“We cannot visualize a situation for decades when we can go beyond the pilot stage. We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools,” Banerjee said, according to The Hindu.
I am sympathetic to the Education Secretary's concerns about computers undermining students' creativity. Of course this need not be the case: there's nothing inherently anti-creative about a computer. Yet, the way computers tend to actually get used in classrooms may well be detrimental to the creative learning. So I believe it's a valid concern, and one that has received far too little attention.

Excitement for OLPC Spreads Among Software Developers:
This tech blogger is psyched about OLPC. "OLPC has excited me" begins his post:
Let me say this - an object based filesystem on a mesh-style network is hot. In python, even hotter. The fact it's open source makes it awesome. I'm hoping to talk to Ivan more about this later on in the conference.... This is probably one of the first open-source projects that makes me feel like a contribution could readily affect the world. I'm going to have to find some free time.
I think the machine sounds exciting too. And his enthusiasm for its hot specs only increases my convinction that there's going to be a strong black-market demand for the laptop.

Because truth be told, Jotman wants one.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Because all comments on this blog are moderated, there will be some delay before your comment is approved.