OLPC, Notion Ink and Low-cost PC’s

Hi all,
This post tries to point few of the reasons why OLPC failed and what could work in Notion Ink’s favor as it tries to crack open the Low-cost PC market.

With the benefit of hindsight on 20-20 and recollections of an morning to evening spent at DAKC Hermitage, here are the top 6 reasons I can think of why OLPC failed in India as well as what benefits Notion Ink Adam might enjoy from the word go. Although before going further, I have to admit the idea for the article from an article I read in Business Standard on the same topic and the interest/hype generated around the $35 laptop announced by Mr. Kapil Sibal in that regard.

1. Partnering with RCom :- OLPC, instead of homing into/with a non-profit/NGO which might have had a passion for education as well as computing (there are quite a few) went and partnered with RCom. RCom looked at the partnership/venture both as a profit generating activity as well as a CSR activity. In either role it failed as it was looking outwards towards other groups to do all the heavy lifting of providing maintainability and other things to the project while RCom will primarily work as a deal-maker and provide logistical support to the initiative. For the whole duration of around a year or a bit more that I was seeing from the outside there were a grand total of 2-3 people who were full-time dedicated to the project. Now even for selling something as simple as a shampoo companies have dedicated teams while here it was a hardware + education project where one is supposed to hand-hold both teachers as well as pupils and provide technical support overall. This was a failing on RCom’s part as not seeing how much ground they have to prepare for proper take off.

2. Small/niche audience :- Being squarely aimed at rural school-going children. While it did help to focus the project it didn’t look at the additional expenses and scale needed to fund a rural project. Either it was OLPC’s intent or RCom’s it fizzled as accessibility to the project site becomes an issue for maintenance. Also the effots needed to understand and pass on the constructionist practices and principles were never put in place.

3. Hardware/software interface :- The XO (the hardware which is the heart of the OLPC project) while it indeed had some interesting and unique features they also had a learning curve to them. Also as it was a FOSS project, many of the components which needed to be open-source or have specifications written about them were simply not available. This also created strain on the project. A similar issue has been faced by the Openmoko community but they have been pretty open and doing some innovative work to overcome the same. That should give an idea as to where and what people should look at.

4. Network connectivity and Power (electricity) :- One of the biggest challenges besides powering the device was the network connectivity. When they started with the XO the 802.11s standard was not upto the mark. It simply couldn’t scale or had issues beyond 30 odd XO’s. It is still a draft standard and people are supposed to be working on it. As of right now its on draft 3. Also when you have only way to connect then it also becomes that much harder if things go wrong.

5. Maintenance :- This is/was one of the big issues as the idea of having support happens only when there are enough implementations of the project on ground so that local entrepreneurs see fit to invest in having expertise in maintaining things as and when things go wrong. This didn’t happen in India.

6. Move to MS-Windows :- This actually sounded the death-knell for the project in many ways. While as can be seen above, it was never a highly successful project, there were a highly dedicated and motivated core developer team as well as volunteers who were charged up. The move to using MS-Windows was wrong as the original motivations of the project (freedom and education to all) were left out. Also the OS was made to fit which was bad rather than improving the one which already worked with the unique hardware/software User Interface (Sugar UI) . The net result being quite a few left due to how they saw their ideals being diluted, few left as Global recession crept in.

Notion Ink OTH has lot of positives as the UI,hardware are pretty much hyped and known . If one had to define Notion Ink Adam tablet in a generalist sense, I would call it a stretched smart phone as essentially that’s what it looks like. It also means if one knows how to repair smart phones then fixing/repairing Notion Ink Adam would not have such a steep learning curve. On the software side too, while it has official support for Google’s Android OS, it would reportedly (from developer’s blog) be also available to use with Canonical’s Ubuntu 10.10 and hopefully Google’s Chrome OS as well. All three being light-weight it would be interesting to see how it grows.

For networking as it has supposed to have WiFi,3G, Bluetooth that takes care of lot of issues. Of course support for Wi-Fi n as well as mesh networking would have been desired but these might be probably available on future models.

What is interesting to note is that Reliance may take part/equity in Notion Ink depending on how it fares on the Adam tablet launch. If the machines work as touted/hyped, then issues such as availability,pricing and maintenance would come into the picture. This is where the logistics and availability of funds needed to rollout Adam would come into play. A base model around 12-15k or therabouts with an enhanced full-featured one figuring around 22-25k would make it a very interesting proposition and could free lot of pent-up demand for computing at those prices.

There is another point as well. Instead of RCom, Reliance has a much bigger war chest to fund these kind of activities. Their forays with Reliance Digital while leaving much to be desired still holds a promise. I have seen few months back, they are branding a few of the Reliance Digital shops with Apple (a.k.a. Istore) and as we all know the cost of holding Apple inventories would be so much more than regular x86 boxes.

The various media reports of MAIT prove that notebooks and netbooks (hopefully tablets as well) have potential to change the scope of computing in India. Let’s see how it all pans out. The date of launch of Notion Ink is somewhere around mid to late November.

/me waiting to check it out. 😛

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