As IBM and Canonical Eye Africa, OLPC’s Missteps Come to Mind [OStatic]

This week brought the news that IBM and Canonical have partnered on a suite of very inexpensive desktop applications aimed at netbooks for businesses in Africa. The suite of software runs on Canonical's Ubuntu Linux operating system, and, as CNet's Lance Whitney notes, "offers open-standards-based e-mail, word processing, a spreadsheet application, communication tools, and social-networking features." There will also be features allowing users to collaborate in the cloud.

If you look at the pricing model for this offering in conjunction with the low prices of netbooks, this sounds like a very viable way to offer users good functionality while avoiding the much greater expense of Windows-based systems equipped with proprietary applications. In fact, as I've been reading the details of the plan, I wonder why the folks behind the beleagured One Laptop for Child initiative didn't see this coming.

One Laptop for Child was always a noble initiative. Emphasizing open source platforms and applications, the original idea was to offer $100 laptops to children around the world who wouldn't otherwise have their own computers. The effort ran into insurmountable problems, though, not the least of which was that the final price for computers ended up falling in the $200 range.

The IBM/Canonical partnership is focused on users who can't afford expensive Windows-based computers and applications for them, but it's fundamentally different from One Laptop Per Child in that it's aimed solely at business users. Still, when the idea for One Laptop Per Child was initially germinating, many hardware and software partners participated. Why didn't they see that trends in low-priced computers and in the worlds of freeware and open source would usher in systems very close in price to the systems that OLPC was aiming for?

You can get a good netbook running a fast chip with a decent amount of memory and Wi-Fi for $300. The suite of software that IBM and Canonical are putting together includes many free and open source components. It includes the Lotus Symphony application suite, which isn't open source, but is free and has an open source codebase. Under the IBM/Canonical plan, IBM will offer African users $10 monthly subscriptions to for online collaboration and social networking. The total offering is not so far above the price point that One Laptop Per Child ended up at for its systems. OLPC, it seems, attempted to build too many things from the ground up, instead of evaluating existing tools.

While IBM and Canonical are initially aiming only at business users in Africa, I won't be surprised to see this partnership spread to other similar efforts around the world. There are reports that the software suite the companies are producing is being tested in areas outside Africa. It's inevitable that computers will make their way into the hands of people around the world who might not have previously been able to afford them. The IBM and Canonical partnership presents solid evidence that existing freeware and open source can be powerful drivers for that trend.


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