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Some Ideas for Marketing the OLPC
Sunday, November 25 2007 @ 04:19 PM EST

You likely saw the Wall Street Journal article on Intel and Microsoft's efforts to crush/compete with the One Laptop Per Child project:
Mr. Negroponte's ambitious plan has been derailed, in part, by the power of his idea. For-profit companies threatened by the projected $100 price tag set off at a sprint to develop their own dirt-cheap machines, plunging Mr. Negroponte into unexpected competition against well-known brands such as Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system.

A version of Mr. Negroponte's vision is starting to come true. Impoverished countries are indeed snapping up cheap laptops for their schoolchildren -- just not anywhere near as many of his as he expected. They now have several cut-price models to choose from, raising the possibility that One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, will end up as a niche player.

Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project sought to get $100 laptops into the hands of millions of the world's poorest schoolchildren. But for-profit versions of the laptop are competing fiercely in the developing world.

"I'm not good at selling laptops," Mr. Negroponte has told colleagues. "I'm good at selling ideas."

I think the article overplays the "derailed" aspect, but leaving that aside, I started to wonder, what can we as a community do to help? Anything beyond participating in the Give One Get One campaign? The most obvious need, if we credit that Negroponte quotation, is for someone good at marketing. Are you good at that? If so, can you volunteer? I have some ideas that I'll throw out there, and maybe someone will find a way to add some more and implement them, and who knows? My ideas stem from observing how Intel is marketing its competing offering, and flipping it over. Let me show you.

What Intel's Classmate is Like and How They Market It

I took a look at Intel's ripoff of the OLPC as I think of it. Here. You can too. A brochure with some specs [PDF]. Here are some videos of the OLPC that you can enjoy and which might give you some ideas.

The Intel Classmate is only close to the idea behind OLPC, and only if you don't look too closely. But let's look closely. Look at the pictures, for starters. Look how it looks after you open it. Would you want to use a computer that looks like that? Would a child? If Intel asked me to market it so kids would like it, I wouldn't know where to start.

The Classmate looks to me to be just another laptop, only smaller and cheesier looking, with a too small screen (it has a resizing feature, so you can cram a normal amount of a page on it, which I'm guessing people leave on all the time) and nothing a child would particularly enjoy by my reckoning, other than the fact that any laptop is better than none, except the digital pen, which is an optional addon, and I'm guessing those pens disappear or get lost in no time. And indeed Intel doesn't market Classmate as something kids will love. They market it as a laptop teachers and parents will find reassuring, because it gives them the illusion of control. Now *that's* significant. I just learned something about marketing. It's about dreams, not about reality.

What dreams are Intel selling? Here's the Classmate demo showing the parental monitoring/policy control feature. Intel is using that to market the thing. The parents can allegedly force kids to turn off the laptop and control what they can do with it, even in the classroom, even turning off the laptop while the child is in class. Why would a parent ever want to do that? In real life, they never would, I'm thinking. It's the illusion, just knowing that they can, not any reality, being sold.

I have some disturbing news for you parents and teachers: The kids will work around the parental control system that regulates when and how the child can use the computer in no time flat. So why is that one of Intel's selling points? Because the adults they are selling to don't know that it won't control the children at all? I expect it's a big selling point, to those who are clueless about tech. It's like how Hollywood drooled over DRM, because they didn't have a tech clue and actually believed it would work.

That type of application can be done in GNU/Linux on the OLPC, by the way, if someone wanted to write an application to do that. You can do whatever you want in GNU/Linux. But OLPC has worked to design special security particularly suited to children, Bitfrost. You don't even need a separate application in a sense because it's built in, and I'd let parents and teachers know that in addition the Linux operating system comes with admin and user permissions, read, write, etc. Just have the parent be admin and the child the user, and the parent really would have some meaningful control. You can prevent access to anything in a GNU/Linux computer by what you allow in the way of permissions. It's easy. And it mostly does work. So if they do take a Classmate, at least choose the Linux version and implement those options. Bitfrost works from the principle that kids won't be able to remember passwords, so it's taken security one step beyond.

I'm thinking to counteract Intel's marketing, though, someone should just write a stupid application that purports to give parents and teachers "control" over the laptop, by making it so easy and GUI'd up that it looks like Intel's regimented offering. Not literally like it, but with that aura. It has to look easy to use and be easy to use, and at the same time be official and regimental in appearance, like it really will keep your children in a playpen you can control by pushing some buttons. Kids get the tech way beyond the older generation, and they will figure out a bypass and then tell each other, whether in Windows or in GNU/Linux, but if that is a feature the adults crave, why not give it to them? If the adults want to dream that they can control their children's use of computers, so be it. See my idea? Sell the dream they are wanting to buy into.

Intel obviously spends a lot of money on marketing, and there's no way to match that budget, but if you guys would write up some "parental control" features in an application with a fearsome-sounding name and some more applications for "interactive activities with teachers" to slap on the OLPC or at least find and list for them, I think that might really be useful. For marketing. In real life, Bitfrost is there already. As for educational software, there is plenty of FOSS educational software already out there, like Moodle and Sakai. Why not include it, or at least let them know about it with lists with links on the OLPC, so teachers know that it is available and freely available? Here's the Moodle homepage:

Moodle is a course management system (CMS) - a free, Open Source software package designed using sound pedagogical principles, to help educators create effective online learning communities. You can download and use it on any computer you have handy (including webhosts), yet it can scale from a single-teacher site to a University with 200,000 students.

It's something that teachers can relate to, something for them. But unless you tell them it's available, and for free, I'm guessing they might get the impression from Intel's marketing that Classmate offers a feature that the OLPC can't, and that's just not so.

The marketing Intel is doing is probably effective with adults who don't quite understand computers themselves. The marketing, to me, is selling old ideas, but because they are old ideas, they are familiar and comforting. So if someone could please write some applications that provide similar comfort, or collect them for marketing, to add to OLPC's offerings, those Classmate marketing bullet points are erased.

What OLPC Offers That Classmate Doesn't

First, the OLPC is great for classroom use, but that isn't all it offers by a mile. You already know about the amazing tech advances, like the innovative screen that you can use in sunlight. But there is more than that. Classmate actually misses the fundamental point of the OLPC, as far as I'm concerned, which is essentially that kids invariably grasp the tech before the parents and the teachers do, so why hold them back? OLPC is a way to educate kids who have inadequate school resources, in areas where there may not even be any adequate schools or teachers, maybe not any at all, let alone any that know anything about computers. Here's a bit about the OLPC vision:


Most of the nearly two–billion children in the developing world are inadequately educated, or receive no education at all. One in three does not complete the fifth grade.

The individual and societal consequences of this chronic global crisis are profound. Children are consigned to poverty and isolation—just like their parents—never knowing what the light of learning could mean in their lives. At the same time, their governments struggle to compete in a rapidly evolving, global information economy, hobbled by a vast and increasingly urban underclass that cannot support itself, much less contribute to the commonweal, because it lacks the tools to do so.

It is time to rethink this equation.

Given the resources that developing countries can reasonably allocate to education—sometimes less than $20 per year per pupil, compared to the approximately $7500 per pupil spent annually in the U.S.—even a doubled or redoubled national commitment to traditional education, augmented by external and private funding, would not get the job done. Moreover, experience strongly suggests that an incremental increase of “more of the same”—building schools, hiring teachers, buying books and equipment—is a laudable but insufficient response to the problem of bringing true learning possibilities to the vast numbers of children in the developing world.

What does Classmate do for those billions of children who have no education or none after the 5th grade, no one to show them how to function in the Classmate's more regimented environment? I'd say not so much, except that the Internet makes knowledge available to anyone who can connect and has figured out how to do that. For that matter, if I were marketing OLPC, I'd include a graphic of all the educational materials already available on the Internet and on the OLPC for any child in the world to use and learn from. That treasure of knowledge is already there, already done, and all the children need is a way to reach it, which with the OLPC they can do this exact minute, with no one needed to even show them. It just works. But could you write some application to make it more readily available, so it's already there on the OLPC, just an easy click from the list?

Classmate is the old way, and that's fine for those that can afford it and have good schools and plenty of teachers for one and all. But for the problem that OLPC is addressing, what does it do? OLPC isn't just a laptop. It's an idea about education:

Standing still is a reliable recipe for going backward.

Any nation's most precious natural resource is its children. We believe the emerging world must leverage this resource by tapping into the children's innate capacities to learn, share, and create on their own. Our answer to that challenge is the XO laptop, a children's machine designed for “learning learning.”

XO embodies the theories of constructionism first developed by MIT Media Lab Professor Seymour Papert in the 1960s, and later elaborated upon by Alan Kay, complemented by the principles articulated by Nicholas Negroponte in his book, Being Digital.

Extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth, constructionism emphasizes what Papert calls “learning learning” as the fundamental educational experience. A computer uniquely fosters learning learning by allowing children to “think about thinking”, in ways that are otherwise impossible. Using the XO as both their window on the world, as well as a highly programmable tool for exploring it, children in emerging nations will be opened to both illimitable knowledge and to their own creative and problem-solving potential.

OLPC is not, at heart, a technology program, nor is the XO a product in any conventional sense of the word. OLPC is a non-profit organization providing a means to an end—an end that sees children in even the most remote regions of the globe being given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community.

I note that Intel is offering "training" to teachers, and indeed they'd have to, if they want teachers to understand the tech first and then have them teach the kids afterward. The OLPC skips that step as being impractical and not necessary if you design the OLPC right. Teachers do use the OLPC wonderfully, and parents can too -- in fact the interactive, cooperative social tools that are built in to the OLPC ensures that parents can have lots of fun with the children and that teachers can seamlessly interface with the children -- but most parents don't know anything about computers, and most teachers don't either. That is true in the US as well. Here's what some teachers are saying about the OLPC after using it in their classrooms:

What teachers are saying

“Before the laptop, the focus of the school curriculum and evaluation was to show what students don't know. Now, the focus is in what the student knows, and how this knowledge can be used as a support so they learn even more.”

“With the laptop we can say that our school is really elevated because the children are really learning more... They see themselves discovering things that they have never been doing before.”

“The bringing of the laptop into the school has brought a transformation into the school... It has brought another idea of how to teach better: now we see that teaching is not more abstract; it's something that pupils can see, and they catch on better.”

“Pupils go even beyond what I can teach in the class. It's a very interesting thing to use. I personally have a better idea about teaching... We discovered that giving them time to discover something and to do it in their own way, they feel more happy and they are so excited in using it that, ‘Yes, I discovered it! Yes, I can get it!! Yes, I can do this on my own!!!’ Teaching is getting more interesting and less stressful.”

I don't think we will see that being said about the Classmate, simply because that isn't what it is for. It's OK for what it is marketed for, but it doesn't attempt even to address the problems that OLPC is addressing. Instead of waiting for that older generation to catch up, the OLPC makes learning available to children *today*, right now, without the need to train the oldsters first, using the natural way all children learn -- by trying things, by interacting with other children and adults, and by experimenting. That is the part that speeds up the process, so it won't be two generations before the children can effectively learn.

Have you ever seen a child with access to a computer for the first time? They usually start banging on the keyboard and experimenting with the mouse, don't they? Fearless. Have you ever tried to teach your dad or grandma how to use a computer? They don't dare touch anything, do they, without permission, because they are afraid of it, afraid they will break it by touching it. Who learns first? If your dad is like mine, he never fully catches on. If I had to wait for him to teach me, well... I love my dad, but I had to teach myself and find other contemporaries to help me. All I know is that experimenting is a wonderful way to learn to use a computer, and I haven't broken one yet. Sometimes you have to reinstall, but that is so easy in Linux -- just keep your home partition and reinstall the rest and you are good to go. It much easier than in Windows, and you don't have to get permission from the Mother Ship either. Say, does the Windows Classmate come with WGA? I can just imagine how well *that* will work. And do you want your kids to be tracked by Microsoft? I'd do marketing on security and privacy, for real, and on upkeep and future costs of upgrading.

Some Other Ideas on How to Help Market OLPC

These are just my ideas, of course, and I have no connection to OLPC, so before you make any moves, it'd be wise to contact them and make sure no one is doing it already. Here's the developers page, and this page explains the software environment, principally Fedora and Python, it looks like. And here's a list of applications already done. In OLPCland, they call applications Activities. I can't wait to try Flipsticks. I wish I'd had that and Cartoon Builder, also on that list, when I was working on my video for the USPTO-Peer2Patent project.

In other words, my idea stems from observing what Intel did. They saw this wonderful idea, knew it would catch on, and so they figured out what to say to blunt its appeal and redirect it to them, and they market that. Why couldn't the community turn that on its back, flip it over or copyleft it, so to speak? All we'd have to do is see what they are pushing and make sure OLPC has it too, on top of all the other wonderful things Classmate doesn't offer. For example, Intel is also marketing Classmate like this:

IA-based, runs on already available content, applications and operating systems with full compatibility to standard PC ecosystem

They mean Windows, of course, although the Classmate can do Linux too. So if someone could prepare a demo that shows how easy it is for kids on OLPC to interface with Window-using folks, I think that would be helpful too. If you have one already, maybe you could do such a video or a review for Groklaw. Or for anywhere.

I'd like to see marketing materials that include information on how once you learn any operating system, you can use pretty much any other, that what children learn with OLPC, with the key to view the source code, is how computers do what they do. That knowledge makes it possible to use any other operating system very easily. I know you know that, but those parents and government representatives trying to decide what to order don't. They probably actually believe that if you don't grow up using Windows, you will be lost when it's time to get a job. I know. It's laughable, but they probably do think that, and from my viewing of Intel's marketing, I'd say that this is an idea they are promoting. So why not just respond effectively, in a way that the parents and government representatives can understand? The simple truth is there is nothing Classmate offers that OLPC can't do, and OLPC offers something beyond that and on top of that.

I'd like to see marketing stressing that the world is switching to Linux in a big way. It's the future. It's obvious to you and me that children learning Linux will be miles ahead of children learning only Windows, as far as comprehension of computing and computer skills go -- indeed look at what OLPC has now, Guido van Robot, which teaches kids how to program. Here's what Guido van Robot offers:

Guido van Robot is a localized minimalistic programming language providing just enough syntax to help students learn the concepts of sequencing, conditional branching, looping and procedural abstraction. Its biggest strength is that it permits this learning in an environment that combines the thrill of problem-solving with instant visual feedback. In short, it is an interactive, introductory programming language that is excellent for learning the basic concepts of programming, applicable in any high-level language. Best of all, it's a whole lot of fun, too!

Anything like that in Classmate? Hardy har. Would kids rather do that or do school activities led by teachers? For that matter, how many teachers can teach what Guido van Robot does? See the point?

If you go through our News Picks, just a list of all the places in the world that governments are switching to Linux would be a useful graphic, I think, for marketing. Let them understand that without this knowledge, the young people will be handicapped in the modern world. I personally believe that the local economies will benefit directly from children learning Linux, because you can build businesses at a very low cost, based on your skills and ingenuity, not how much money you have to invest in infrastructure and software licenses, and without sending your money to a software vendor outside of the local economy. No doubt you can find quotations from experts saying that and marketing materials could include it.

You also have protection from common malware that Windows users so often suffer from, and when I think of those children and all that can happen in a Windows environment, I worry for them and for the Internet. So the marketing should include information on security built in to OLPC and some easy to find statistics on 0wned computers in the wild already. This is a very strong selling point, I think. Here's one article with some statistics, to get you started.

Here's a YouTube demo of the two, and you'll see the difference in the screen size between OLPC and Classmate even if you don't understand Portuguese, but if you see the part showing the specs, I think you'll see how someone could be misled into thinking that they need the Classmate for more power. For example, it lists the Classmate at 900 MHz, OLPC at 500; Classmate storage space at 1 GB, OLPC at 512; memory 256 for Classmate, 128 for OLPC. Those are probably old figures, but can't you see how some might react by assuming that makes the Classmate better? That seems to be the point of that video, actually.

While it's always desirable to have more memory and speed, what some might not know is that Linux doesn't need more power. It runs just fine on much less. And the OLPC project is customized to cut back on power consumption quite deliberately. It's a feature, not a bug.

And here's a question for you: can Classmate run Vista? Ever? Perhaps they are working on that, but surely it can't now, since Microsoft says you need a 1 Ghz processor and a 20 GB hardrive with 15 GBs available just for Home Basic, the lowest version, so already those kids on a Windows Classmate are behind the times, if you think about it. Well, you get the concept. I don't know if anyone is ever going to actually use Vista much. But, when it's time to upgrade, will it be free or will the schools then pay again? Will it be at the special rate then? Did you get that in writing?

For that matter, I'd tell the adults that they can put the OLPC software on their other computers if they have one available and want to, and get even more mileage. Make sure they know.

Here's my list then of marketable ideas:

1. Kids love OLPC. It's designed to please them. They will love to learn using it, and you won't have to beg them to do their homework.

2. Parents and teachers can control what the children can do, because GNU/Linux has tools built in to do that, if desired.

3. Children can learn computers without adults needing to do so first. OLPC even teaches them how to program.

4. There are lesson plans and interactive projects that teachers can use in the classroom with OLPC. But even if there is no school and no teacher, or no competent teachers, your child will learn and keep up with the world anyway, and when it's time to enter the job market, he or she will have marketable skills.

5. There are no hidden, future costs of upgrading.

6. Linux is the future. If your kids don't learn it, they will be at a disadvantage in the market.

7. If they learn Linux, they can use any other operating system.

8. Applications are available that behave a lot like Microsoft Office. There is no meaningful learning curve, and the children will be able to interact with others using Windows.

9. The Firefox browser, included on OLPC, opens up the world of learning to your children.

10. No one tracks your child's activities on an OLPC, and malware is not a problem in GNU/Linux to the same degree it is in Windows, so your children should be safer.

Other Ways to Help

You can participate, as I mentioned, in the Give One Get One offer, which has been extended through December 31. I hope they extend it indefinitely, myself. I'll bet you know some kids that would love to have one, and you'd be teaching them too the joy of giving and sharing with other children in the world. Schools can participate too, not just individuals, by the way. Alabama figured that out already.

You can contribute to translation. Here's the page of the latest OLPC news and the archives, so you can see what others have done and are doing to help. You can subscribe to the OLPC mailing list to keep up to date, so your ideas will mesh well.

But What Dream Can OLPC Market?

The real one -- that your children can have a better life than you do. That they can leap over the boundaries that restrict you, by learning more than you know, even if the schools are underfunded and understaffed and technically backward, even if you have no money to spend on their education, and that after they learn they will show you, too. Is that not every parent's dream? That their child will succeed beyond what the parent ever did?

That is a dream worth marketing. Because it's true.

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