I squeezed in to the last half hour of Nick Negroponte's presentation of the OLPC today at the World Summit on the Information Society. It was so full it was moved to a larger room outside the exposition hall, in an area which I believe is inaccessible to those holding only an exposition (ICT4all) badge and not credentialed to the WSIS (which means you know someone in a delegation willing to do a favor).
What I heard when I got there was Nick's reply to someone who brought up the connectivity questions. the schools would all have servers that would provide backhaul and could "trickle" data into the laptops overnight. I first thought he was referring to trickle charging of batteries, but then figured it out.
I stood next to a fellow who next got the mike, and he asked "is there a system design?", referring mostly to software. Nick said that all kinds of software would be designed for it by others, and he used his best go-away-and-stop-botherng-me sincere voice to assure us that OLPC would do everything possible to make the right software available.
I turned to the questioner and said "the answer is no". He agreed, we talked, and it turned out that he had some acquaintances that I wanted to meet.
Nick said at one point that it was better to have the laptops than to have nothing, as if that were the choice. He did say that the one-per-child principle was absolutely essential, and gave us the argument that he said won over the governor of Maine:
"Say there was a state like Maine where there was only a spoken language, and they invented written language. So they say that there will be one pencil per school, and some others say there should be labs with ten pencils in them. I say there sould be one pencil per student."
Well, this seems to assume that pencils would cost $100 apiece. If that were the case then it would be a good idea to keep the pencils in a room in each school and supervise their use, making sure there is equity in access until such time as the price can be brought down so that losing or breaking a pencil is not a traumatic event for the child.
Or is he saying that in that example pencils cost $1000 each, and he wanted to bring their price down to $100 so each child could have one. Could they? I really think he needs a better metaphor.
And along the way he mentioned that, of course, they wouldn't be able to equip all the children with laptops at once, but that maybe one school would be equipped, then more later. Now, let's imagine which schools would be the lucky ones...
So it seems as if, in the harsh light of day, there is backpedaling and fast footwork going on, as I suspected there would be. It's the old soft shoe, not a slam dunk, which is good news. It's the herd mentality that most frightens me.