Will OLPC be the TiVo of PCs for emerging markets?

olpc-1.jpgWith the dust-up this week about Intel leaving the fold of OLPC, it got me to thinking: Will One Laptop Per Child become the TiVo of PCs for emerging markets? In other words, they spark the revolution but gain relatively little from it.

TiVo of course almost single-handidly created the DVR category and market. Their technology was very well executed, they created a user experience that is still unparalleled in terms of ease and joy of use, and with continual roll-out of innovative capabilities that kept stretching the definition of the product.

But ultimately their business model proved insufficient to the task of dominating the category that they had created, and the superior user experience and features were not enough to compete with the “good enough” offerings sold with monthly subscriptions from cable and satellite providers. If “great design” were all that mattered in making a product succeed, by all rights TiVo would own the DVR market, but sadly that is not the case. The fast followers have largely taken over the market.

OLPC has many of the same traits: Tightly integrated user experience, innovative design and features, and a rather shaky business model that is hard to see how it will scale well. Ultimately OLPC’s legacy is likely to be similar to TiVo’s too: it sparked the market and brought attention to it in a high profile way. But others with more clout, better understanding of the business imperatives, and the distribution and manufacturing muscle to back it up will in the long term come to dominate. Creating a platform of ingredients, rather than trying to be the all-in-one marquee solution, is probably going to be the winning strategy, as it has been with DVRs.

OLPC has had partnerships to help build out their capabilities, but the bickering as described by Charles Cooper is emblematic of the strains that occurred with TiVo and its early service provider partners. There is the dance of each wanting to dominate, and each waiting for the tipping point when it makes more sense to go it alone. In OLPC’s case, as with much of the effort’s history, it is happening embarrassingly publicly.

Let’s hope that these fast-followers don’t take the lazy way out and just sell cheap PC’s, but instead design them based on a rich and deep understanding of the cultural needs of the children, teachers and schools who will use them. Ideally these will appear out of the cultures themselves (similar perhaps to the Asus eee PC), and given the globalization of design and engineering capabilities there’s no reason why that couldn’t happen.