In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte announced an audacious goal: He was going to put a laptop in the hands of every child in developing countries. With his “One Laptop Per Child” project, the futurist and marquee Wired magazine columnist was looking to close the widening gap between the world’s haves and have-nots. His underlying premise: In the computer age, there should be none of the latter, because the PC was the ultimate equalizer.
OLPC was greeted with great acclaim among the Internet’s 1 percent, many of who were highly motivated to empower the other 99. It was backed by a host of blue-ribbon tech companies and got the perfect coming-out party at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, where the UN Development Program announced it too would support the project. OLPC’s machine, the XO, was tailor-made for the developing world: It had a hard plastic shell to survive outdoors, where it would see a lot of use, and a screen that could be read in direct sunlight. It used 1/10th the power of contemporary laptops and could be recharged with solar energy. And at $200, it was incredibly cheap by laptop standards back then.
Seven years later, OLPC is still grinding away—by the end of 2011 it had given away 2.4 million XO laptops—but to say that the program hasn’t changed the world would be a kind understatement. The irony is that Negroponte’s project didn’t fail because the world was resistant to change. It failed because the world changed too quickly. OLPC was a well-intentioned moon shot that fell short because it solved a hardware problem that all but evaporated. The seemingly quixotic XO had only a two-year head start on the greatest leap forward in mobile computing, the iPhone.
Think about how much computers have changed since 2005. Some of the best mobile devices in the world now cost just a little more than the $200 you must still pony up to send an XO to a needy kid in Somalia. For that price you can get an Amazon Kindle Fire, a Nexus 7, an iPod Touch—or half of an iPad Mini. Getting a cutting-edge computer to every tech-starved child is no longer a daunting challenge—you could just give away last year’s discarded smartphones and overstocked tablets and say, Job well done!
But you still wouldn’t have made things much better for all those have-nots. As Negroponte now knows, that war won’t be won with hardware; it’s now about providing a data stream for those devices. The PC democratized computers; hundreds of millions of them, in turn, demanded a way to be connected.