Blue rays of hope?

Don't ask, don't Intel.

Promises broken, contracts torn up, splashy CES announcements hastily canceled. It was a nasty bit of business all right -- and no, I'm not talking about Warner Brothers' sudden decision to ditch the HD-DVD format in favor of Blu-ray. I'm talking about Intel's abrupt departure from the One Laptop Per Child project, six months after signing on.

There hasn't been this much hissing and spitting in the press since Le Donald divorced Ivana. Among other things, OLPC claims that an Intel sales-demon tried to talk Peru's minister of education out of its commitment to buy 270,000 of the OLPC's XO machines, saying there were problems with the power adapters, so they'd buy Intel's own Classmate computer instead.

Intel says the OLPC do-gooders wanted them to stop selling the Classmate in favor of the AMD-powered XO machine. So they took their plans for an Intel-based laptop for kids and their US$12 million investment and went home.

OLPC says it didn't really want Intel's machine anyway, because it was too expensive and power hungry, so neener neener.

OLPC patron saint Nicholas Negroponte thinks all the kids on the playground should play nice and support the US$100 laptop, even if it's really more like a US$200 laptop. Intel wants to earn gold stars for good citizenship while talking the poor kids into giving up their lunch money. (And by the way, did you know that the XO has cooties? Pass it on.)

But this project has been plagued long before Intel got involved. Rising costs, slipping schedules -- the OLPC was like a Microsoft launch without lame marketing slogans or flying furniture. Libya bailed on its commitment to buy more than a million XOs and went instead with the Classmate (though you gotta wonder if a little bird from Santa Clara talked them into that decision). They're not the only developing nation having second thoughts.

Old St. Nick may be part of the problem. Brilliant thinker? Yes. Great humanitarian? Possibly. Able-bodied high-tech CEO? Not so much. And teaching kids that a US$100 PC actually costs US$188 is just raising them to be poor mathematicians.

The good news: OLPC has no plans to bundle with a HD drive, so they can avoid the format madness. Me, I'm for anything that stops this ridiculous spitting match between Sony and Toshiba. But I wouldn't write off HD-DVD just yet. We have heard this tune before. Wake me up when the fat lady is really singing, and then maybe -- maybe -- I'll think about upgrading from DVD.

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Robert X. Cringely

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