One Laptop Project: Time for a Priority Check


I've kept an eye on the One Laptop Per Child project since its inception, and I've been tempted to comment on its virtues since Nicholas Negroponte began the push to create sub-$100 laptops to distribute to children in Third World economies.


The latest news on the project -- that Negroponte is irked with Intel for launching a $200 system to compete with his own AMD-based machine, which now carries a $170 price tag -- really shouldn't surprise anyone. Certainly, as Negroponte contends, Intel is not going to let AMD do anything without answering. Government contracts, even for sub-$200 mobile devices, are just too enticing to pass up for a big vendor.


I don't know whether to think Negroponte's reaction is based purely on ego, as blogger Om Malik suggests:

...since this seems to be a mission of charity (and not a play for Nobel Peace Prize), Negroponte should be happy that others are willing to follow his lead, and get more of these frankendevices into the hands of more and more kids.

I'm more inclined to believe that any incursion of the free market into what has been essentially a Socialist test-bed project from the start would just gall the guy who started it, on an intellectual level if nothing else.


That's understandable, I suppose, but it's also pretty much how the free market works. People grow on your ideas. Unless you want to go to the dark side and get something as loathsome as a patent -- not that you could patent the idea of a really cheap laptop -- folks are going to compete with you using stuff that looks pretty much like your own stuff.


I've wondered from the start why Negroponte and others interested in bringing technology to kids who can't otherwise afford it haven't launched a program by which they sell their sub-$200 devices to schools in the U.S., Britain and other G8 economies for, say, $325, and apply the excess -- I won't say "profit" -- toward getting the devices into the hands of Third World kids. Lord knows all schools, including those in the richest countries, would jump at the chance to put a capable computing device into the hands of students at that price point. And educators would embrace the social upside of such a program.


The free market doesn't always have to be evil. Toyota actually does charge money for the hybrid Prius.


This could ultimately extend to the consumer market, as well -- that crank-powered battery sounds pretty cool.


Negroponte finally said last month that he would consider selling the machines to U.S. schools at a higher price point, but his statement didn't make it clear whether this shift would specifically benefit Third World kids. It could offset the cost to those governments (good), it could simply help OLPC make its initial order volume to move into production this September (OK), or it could just just make AMD and other providers a little happier (not so bad, but not noble).


In reading up on the latest OLPC spat -- fueled by a 60 Minutes report this weekend -- I am increasingly disenchanted by the basic assumption that the biggest problem faced by kids in the Third World is poor access to the Internet. It's fashionable -- and admittedly hopeful -- to think that knowledge is the key to changing the world. History shows that clean water and food are probably a little more critical, at least in setting a baseline where learning can take place.


Even in the richest countries, including the U.S., educators will tell you that nutrition programs are more critical than technology access in educating the poorest kids.


Stan Beer at ITWire notes today that OLPC laptops will be given to kids in economies where it's likely they will be stolen or sold on the black market for food and other essentials. It's not evil -- it's just desperate.


It seems to me that instead of griping about Intel, Negroponte could put market pressure on the giant -- and his own initiative -- to use the free market to not only provide kids with laptops, but also secure learning centers at their schools where they can share the machines without fear of theft, by others or their own families.

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May 22, 2007 5:25 AM Bruno Bruno  says:
You are missing the point that Negroponte has to reach a certain number to start the production (Not reached yet).The manouvering of Intel and Microsoft is aiming at that.Then when the laptop project fails, the price will go up and the third world children will still using Windows. Reply
May 22, 2007 8:14 AM Vladimir Orlovsky Vladimir Orlovsky  says:
I visited Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam just few months ago...1. in Cambodia people need ... long list/lots of staff, and computer is Not on that list.2. Technology is NOT making people happy.just one example:if Hitler can get batter technology ...I hope you get my point.3. Why we looking for poor countries,here in US, we have Officially !! millions of people, who live below line of normal-human-life... Reply
May 24, 2007 1:33 AM John John  says:
There is one positive aspect of giving children a laptop, especially those in poor countries, namely they can access the internet. Granted this might require them walking several miles from their village but, if they can access the internet then they have access to nearly all human knowledge. They can learn mathematics, chemistry, business, etc. They can learn how to solve problems, how to think critically and how to apply this to their current situation. They can learn how to set up a business and make it profitable (like selling local fruits, or providing services, etc.). They can learn how to use the raw materials locally available in their village to make safer homes. They can learn about basic sanitation, first aid, and disaster preparation. Finally if they have a problem they can't solve, they have the entire world at their disposal, someone, someplace out there will have an answer. Reply
May 25, 2007 9:55 AM Charbax Charbax  says:
You don't know what the Intel laptop costs. It's not costing $200 to produce, still that's the price Intel is offering in low volumes to the governments. It costs Intel probably more than $400 to produce them in such low numbers.Intel does not want information about their offer to come out, cause they know it's ridiculous.This is not competition, this is Intel being desperate that OLPC will mass produce the first low cost Linux laptop ever, and that it will certainly change the way people think about computers also in the first world. Reply
I need visa from you to contiune my education over there.ThanksRegards. Reply
May 29, 2007 9:48 AM John Gilmore John Gilmore  says:
If you had $300 or $400 to spend on a laptop, you wouldn't buy this one. You could get a much better laptop. This one has NO HARD DRIVE. It has a really slow processor, and not much RAM. Its web browser can only view one page at a time. It's designed to go where electricity is not reliable, where there isn't as much infrastructure, where not every school and home has DSL or cable. I certainly hope that the advances in the OLPC are incorporated into commercial laptops soon -- like the yummy screen, the fanless low power design, the mesh networking, and the close integration of hardware design with Linux software. US buyers should buy those machines, not the OLPC.The idea that "we should buy kids clean water instead" is foolish. Get outside the US to the countries that are actually involved in OLPC. Thailand, Brazil, etc, have good roads, good water, sanitation, plenty of food and clothing. The OLPC isn't for starving Bangladeshis or war-torn African nations; it's for the middle tier of countries, rich enough to take care of the basics, but not rich enough to spend thousands per pupil per year like the US and Europe. Is it OK to improve the education of the middle tier, or should we drop everything else until we get that clean water to the poorest? Reply
May 30, 2007 3:26 AM Laptop hq Laptop hq  says:
Jane, comparing bloggers to senators? Come on, that's facile at best. Senators are public servants, who accept a wage from the public and who are there - ostensibly - to protect the public. Reply
May 30, 2007 9:05 AM Ken-Hardin Ken-Hardin  says:
Hello, all --John, if your assertion that the OLPC is for mid-tier economies, that's only because other nations -- India, for example -- which do have regions that suffer from extreme poverty have backed out of the project.see: naseumAmong the nations announcing participation in the project is Rwanda. Another interesting post I wanted to point out: all, Ken Reply
May 30, 2007 10:47 AM David David  says:
Hello all,Having lived for the last 8 years in Brazil and, before that, 3 years in Ethiopia, I fully agree with those who disagree with the idea of selling cheap computers to poor governments for their students. The black market point is entirely correct. If these computers are useful, they will not reach or stay in the hands of school children. If they're not useful, they're a waste of money. Also, no matter how low maintenance they are, these PCs will break and become useless to families (and schools) that cannot afford to fix them.In Africa, a major reason for adolescent girls to drop out of school is that they cannot afford tampons/pads when they are menstruating. In middle-income Brazil, the cost of books and school materials (pencils, paper, uniforms, etc.) is prohibitive for many families. How will they afford computers and computer repairs?Even if the student or school has the money for maintenance, in most parts of the developing world, there will be no local person capable of repairing these machines. The governments of these countries cannot afford to staff and equip schools today. How will they afford computers and computer maintenance?Computers are good. I love computers. But the OLPC program is a well-intentioned boondoggle.Cheers. Reply
May 30, 2007 11:07 AM Juan Alberto Aranda Juan Alberto Aranda  says:
Eleven children DIED in Guerrero from rotavirus in the mexican state of Guerrero. The rain season has just started, and they are expecting more deaths because of a possible contamination of the water sources.Do you think those children need a laptop? Guerrero is a southern state in M�xico. Is the state in which the port of Acapulco is located. Reply
Dec 5, 2007 8:56 AM Bernard Akporode Adehor Bernard Akporode Adehor  says:
People might say African children do not require a laptop as there are more pressing issues like poverty.The OLPC is a very excellent innovative idea only if we can see beyond the fact that poverty is Africans problem. I am of the opinion that if we begin to think of what good use the OLPC could be put to, then we are know standing on the shoulders of giants will enable us to grow on other peoples ideas.Thus, we should forget about poverty but, think of what good use the laptop could put into to reduce the cause of poverty. Reply

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