Thai troubles for the $100 Laptop

Bruce Einhorn

Has Thailand gotten off the $100 laptop bandwagon? That’s something that MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte hopes to find out soon. Negroponte is chairman of the non-profit One Laptop Per Child, the world’s most ambitious project to develop low-cost computers for children. (The first computers, when they’re ready next year, will likely cost closer to $150; the $100 target will take longer to reach.) Negroponte spends most of his time traveling around the globe trying to get heads of government to support his plan to provide the Linux-based laptops that his team has designed specifically for schoolchildren. He's signed up leaders in Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria and Libya. (Yes, Libya.) And while OLPC suffered a setback this summer when a top Indian education official ruled out participating (see this BW story for more on this), Negroponte recently met with the Prime Minister of Pakistan about having OLPC machines for schoolchildren there.

For the past few days, Negroponte has been in Hong Kong, attending the ITU conference here and meeting with other OLPC executives to discuss tech issues related to the machine’s development, but a big concern has been what’s happening in Thailand. The kingdom had been one of the strongest supporters of OLPC, thanks to the enthusiastic backing of billionaire telecom tycoon-turned politician Thaksin Shinawatra, who was prime minister until getting booted in a bloodless coup in October. Not surprisingly, the new government is not so keen on sticking with Thaksin’s projects, including OLPC. In late November, new Education Minister Wijit Srisa-arn had scrapped some of the foremer government’s ambitious plans to make Thai education more high tech. According to this report in the Nation newspaper,Wijit made it clear that the government won’t be buying any of Negroponte’s machines. “We won't request a budget to finance such ideas," Wijit said.

Seems pretty clear cut, but Negroponte says that he’s not convinced that the door is closed in Thailand. “You never can believe these things,” he says. And he has a card to play. He says that he’s close with the King’s daughter and will be having dinner with the Princess at the royal palace in Bangkok tonight.