After two-and-a-half years of relentless organizing, product development, and evangelizing, the so-called $100 laptop is ready to go into production in October. At a time like this, you'd think that übertechnology visionary Nicholas Negroponte and his team at the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization would be stockpiling champagne for a blowout celebration. Far from it.
While the notebook computer for schoolchildren in underdeveloped nations is just about ready for prime time, the goal of distributing tens of millions of the cute green-and-white machines still seems a far-off dream. The reasons: The computers, now called XO Laptops, will cost about $188 each to produce initially, nearly twice the original estimate; and, so far, not a single government has written a check.
That's why on Sept. 24, the OLPC announced a money-raising gambit called "Give 1 Get 1." Originally, the organization had no set plans to sell or distribute the computers in the U.S. Now it's hoping to capitalize on widespread interest from American gadget fans to raise enough money to pay for shipments of XO Laptops to four countries that are among the poorest of the poor: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, and Rwanda.
Under Give 1 Get 1, which will run for two weeks starting Nov. 12, U.S. customers will be able to pay $399 to buy two laptops: one for themselves and one to be shipped to a child in one of those four countries. About half of the purchase price will be tax-deductible. Also, starting Sept. 24, people can simply "give" a laptop by making a $200 donation. Those who'd like to participate can sign up for e-mail alerts on the Web site www.XOgiving.org. The machines, which are being built in Taiwan, will begin shipping to U.S. customers in January or February.
While the highly quotable Negroponte has been a master at getting publicity for OLPC, this effort is mostly about cash: "It has become important for us to raise money this way," says Negroponte. "I have met with about 30 heads of state. They're all enthusiastic. But there's a huge gulf between a head of state shaking your hand and a minister making a bank transfer." Negroponte won't predict how many laptops might be sold through Give 1 Get 1, but factory capacity presents no limitations: Quanta Computer in Taiwan can produce 1 million XO Laptops a month, if need be.
Interviewed during a stop in Europe, Negroponte admitted that the difficulties of his task sometimes discourage him. "You wake up some mornings feeling that way, but then I think about all the good people who are helping us and supporting us," he says. He hopes that by subsidizing the purchase of computers in the four countries, OLPC will prompt other countries to make their own investments.
Carlos Slim Has Promised Purchases
On the bright side, he says, Peru and Uruguay seem to be on the verge of placing orders. Elsewhere, Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú has pledged to buy and donate 250,000 XO Laptops for Mexico's children.
There are more than a dozen pilot programs in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Thailand, and elsewhere. In Brazil, where five such trials are under way, the government is deciding whether to adopt a program to distribute computers to students for free, and if it does, whether to buy the XO Laptop.
The early results are promising, says Juliano Bittencourt, a university researcher who coordinates the pilot program at the Luciana de Abreu School in Porto Alegre, a major city near Brazil's southern tip. Since March, 251 of the school's 298 students have received laptops donated by OLPC, well on the way toward the goal of supplying one laptop per child. More than 20 teachers who also received machines have been busy revising their curricula to make the computers integral tools for education. Students, for instance, are working in teams with the computers to conduct research and make presentations on topics of their own choosing.
Challenges Big and Small
The pilot programs are essential for identifying the glitches that are bound to arise when computers are deployed in cash-strapped schools. Setting up and paying for Internet access can be a challenge. Bittencourt and his researcher colleagues have been giving the OLPC organization feedback on the hardware and software so its techies can make improvements. Also, since there are few electrical outlets in the Porto Alegre school, they jury-rigged a system for powering and charging the computers using a web of cheap power strips. The XO Laptops are designed to consume very little electricity. "If we bought traditional laptops, we'd have to replace all of the electrical wires in the school, and that would make it impossible to make this work," says Bittencourt.
While there has been much praise for OLPC, the project has its critics, too. "I think the problem of getting orders is showing that the brilliant idea of getting governments to buy in huge volumes is a flawed strategy," says Wayan Vota, editor of OLPC News, a Web site that tracks the project closely. He supports the OLPC's goals, but in addition to selling the idea to high-level government officials, he favors a process of winning over educators closer to the front lines and enlisting them in gradually rolling out the laptops to schools.
Vota and other observers also say Negroponte and his cohorts are sometimes too doctrinaire in their belief that the best way to use computers in education is to hand them to children and let them figure out what they want to do with them. Negroponte says that's an unfair criticism. When he approaches governments, he says, he lays out two options. The first is the idea of putting the machines in the children's hands and letting them take them home at night, where they'll learn by experimenting. A second option, which he calls the "Trojan Horse," is employing the laptops as electronic books that the teachers and administrators can use to deliver their already-existing curricula. "This is less disturbing to the educational establishment," he says.
The Elusive $100 Mark
When Negroponte launched his project, he hoped to quickly get the cost per laptop below $100. Instead, he found that the cost of buying and assembling the 800 parts that go into each machine was nearly double. However, as production volumes rise, he expects to reduce the current $188 cost by about 40% with each passing year. If he’s right, he may yet succeed in bringing the laptop in under the $100 mark.
Another challenge he faces is competition from commercial computer makers. For instance, NComputing of Redwood Shores, Calif., sells a system that includes a single PC that connects with up to seven simple computer terminals for a price of $142 per student. The startup has had some successes in rural schools in the U.S. and in some emerging nations. "I'm concerned that programs depending on charity will never meet the real needs of children in developing countries," says Chief Executive Stephen Dukker. He says his products "provide low-cost access to the complete PC experience while also providing the profits necessary to support an entire value chain of support and services."
And so, with a number of alternatives to chose from, countries are taking their time to evaluate their options. But despite the bumpy start, the OLPC initiative has plenty of support from powerful technology companies, including Google (GOOG), AMD (AMD), eBay (EBAY), Intel (INTC), and News Corp. (NWS). AMD Chief Executive Hector Ruiz, who was the first industry leader to pledge support to Negroponte, remains confident that demand for the machines will take off eventually. "Unfortunately, it gets caught up in a bureaucratic mess," he says.
AMD, which provides the processors for the machines, has already benefited from collaborating with the OLPC to help design a device that's inexpensive, rugged, and extremely energy-efficient. Drawing on that experience, the company has worked with a PC maker to develop an AMD-powered computer designed specifically for emerging markets. If that product sells well, at least AMD will have cause for celebration.