Friday, January 4, 2008

Intel Quits OLPC Board

PC World reported this morning that Intel had resigned from the board of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) consortium, having only joined the group in July. The breakup reportedly came about because OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte insisted that Intel abandon its own Classmate PC effort and throw its support behind OLPC's XO notebook, which is built around an 433 MHz AMD Geode LX-700 running Red Hat's Fedora Core 6 version of Linux. Needless to say, this configuration doesn't go over well in either Santa Clara or Redmond.

OLPC's desire to have Intel on board is understandable. To date they haven't come close to hitting their target of the "$100 notebook," $180 being closer to the truth. With their low-cost manufacturing prowess--not to mention marketing muscle--Intel could have helped considerably.

The more interesting question is Intel's motives in joining OLPC in the first place. OLPC could be a great marketing channel for a notebook based on a low-power Intel processor--though the latest generation won't start shipping for some months yet. When Intel joined OLPC, both sides agreed to stop dissing each other's efforts, which was a win/win scenario. Those days are now over.

Since the XO has been an AMD product from the beginning--and since OLPC is the Classmate PC's only real competitor--the more cynical among us may recall Michael Corleone's advice to "keep your friends close but your enemies closer." Being on the OLPC board, Intel was certainly privy to OLPC's strategies, tactics and contacts as well as their product plans and specifications. Will this knowledge enable them to compete more effectively with OLPC? Obviously. Even if they signed NDAs, will they forget what they learned? Obviously not.

This is not to impute nefarious motives to Intel, who have every right--indeed an obligation--to act in their own self interest. But it's hard to see this relationship as having been anything but a marriage of convenience from the beginning, one whose breakup was foreordained.

How this plays out will be instructive. If Intel takes the high road, the increased competition will benefit disadvantaged children around the world, which is what the non-profit OLPC effort is all about. OTOH if Intel gets really aggressive and manages to shoot down its smaller rival, then the only real winner will be Intel.

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