It was like one of those ill-fated relationships you suspect won’t last, and on Jan. 3, it finally ended: Citing disagreements with the organization, Intel Corp. said it has abandoned the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, dealing a blow to the ambitious project that seeks to bring millions of low-cost laptops to children in developing countries.

The fallout ends a long-simmering spat that began even before the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker joined OLPC’s board in July, agreeing to contribute money and technical expertise. It also came only a few days before the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where a prototype of an OLPC-designed laptop using an Intel chip was slated to debut.

Intel decided to quit the nonprofit project and its board of directors because the two organizations had reached a “philosophical impasse,” Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said. Meanwhile, Intel will continue marketing its own inexpensive laptop, called the Classmate, which it is selling in some of the same emerging markets OLPC has targeted.

Both sides shared the objective of providing children around the world with access to low-cost technology, “but OLPC had asked Intel to end our support for non-OLPC platforms, including the Classmate PC, and to focus on the OLPC platform exclusively,” Mulloy said. “At the end of the day, we decided we couldn’t accommodate that request.”

OLPC was founded in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, former Media Lab director at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original concept was to offer a “$100 laptop,” but the low-power, green-and-white “XO” computer now costs $188. It runs on a version of the Linux operating system and a chip made by Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD).

A day after learning that Intel was abandoning his project over “philosophical” differences, Negroponte hit back, claiming on Jan. 4 that Intel had undermined his group’s effort to sell low-cost computers for schoolchildren in the developing world even after the chip company got a seat on the nonprofit’s board. He said Intel’s sales representatives had been disparaging OLPC and its XO machine as they pushed Intel’s sub-$300 Classmate PCs.

Negroponte said Intel even tried to undo a deal that OLPC already had sealed in Peru by citing flaws in the XO and telling government ministers “we ought to know, because we are on the board.” Such hostile comments were prohibited, Negroponte claimed, under the July peace treaty that brought Intel into the OLPC camp.

“I want to say we tried, but it was never a partnership,” Negroponte said. “There’s not one single thing in their contract or agreement that they lived up to.”

Intel spokesman Mulloy denied that his company did anything that violated its agreement with OLPC. He reiterated that Intel could not live with Negroponte’s demand for the company to stop selling its Classmate PCs overseas.

Because Intel rival AMD supplies microprocessors for the XO laptops, Negroponte had said—in press interviews, at least—that he had not expected Intel to advocate actively for the XOs until Intel chips made their way into the computers sometime this year. In fact, Intel and Negroponte had planned to display an Intel-powered XO at this week’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but that is now off.

OLPC originally intended to have sold millions of its innovative laptops in the developing world by now. Instead, the group has sold 300,000, with many countries that initially expressed interest later changing their minds. One hurdle has been the XO’s higher-than-originally advertised price and lack, for now, of support for the ubiquitous Windows operating system. But another hindrance has been its own buzz, because the group’s plans to spread computers for developing-world education awoke rival vendors to get interested in the market.

Perhaps the most aggressive competitor was Intel, which Negroponte accused of showing interest merely to fend off an AMD machine. Then Negroponte made his peace with Intel CEO Paul Otellini last July, hoping to get an enemy close.

Negroponte said Jan. 4 that no longer having Intel on his team wouldn’t hurt his efforts to find more international buyers.

“No, it probably restores some momentum,” he said. “We were being extraordinarily distracted.”

Links:

One Laptop Per Child

Intel’s Classmate PC