‘One Laptop Per Child’ Benefits Poor Children

Published April 1, 2008

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative has exceeded 250,000 laptops distributed in various parts of the world since production of the inexpensive XO machine designed for the program started in November 2007, according to Walter Bender, OLPC president of software/content and chief operating officer.

OLPC is a nonprofit organization created by computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte to design, manufacture, and distribute laptop computers sufficiently affordable to provide every child in the world access to new channels of learning.

Since the 1970s there have been numerous pilot projects involving children and the use of computers, according to OLPC. These have taken place in the United States, India, numerous Latin America countries, and in Southeast Asia. Negroponte and his family funded two schools in Cambodia at which laptops were given to children.

Negroponte unveiled the OLPC initiative in January 2005 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Negroponte is currently on leave from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory and a professor of media technology. The MIT Media Lab is the physical location of the initiative.

Worldwide Program

OLPC has shipped laptops, priced at $188 each plus the cost of shipping, to Mongolia, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, Haiti, and several countries in Africa and the Middle East. Most of those were paid for through government programs in the recipient countries. Bender says OLPC’s goal is to get the cost of the machines down to $100.

OLPC officials have been in discussions in some countries about tapping into their universal access fees to help pay for the laptops. In the United States, those discussions have yet to go beyond the state level, according to Bender. Discussions have advanced a little more in some other countries, but the organization has yet to get approval to tap into any universal access funds.

U.S., Canada Efforts

The laptops also have appeared in the U.S. and Canada, primarily through the organization’s “Give One, Get One” program, which ran for six weeks beginning in mid-November 2007. In that program, a buyer would pay $400 for the Linux-based machines, covering the cost of one to be donated to a child in a developing nation. Eighty-four thousand machines were sold (and the same number donated) during the program’s run, Bender said.

OLPC didn’t continue the program because it wanted to try to keep production in line with demand. There have been published complaints of slow order fulfillment.

In addition to the Linux operating systems, the XO machines have software to run chat, Web browser, news feed, calculator, video, paint, e-book, and music programs, Bender said. Other compatible software is readily available via the Internet.

Rugged Machine

Bender says the machines are physically rugged enough to hold up in difficult environments. While not “ruggedized” to the level of some expensive laptops such as the Panasonic Toughbook, the XO laptop is designed to operate in difficult environments.

Whereas most laptops are tested for durability by being dropped from 35 centimeters (just under 14 inches), the XO is tested from a couple of meters. The backlighting feature is designed to operate for five years.

The machines can operate on a variety of electrical systems and can withstand the “dirty” power currents of many developing countries, Bender says. For an additional $10, a buyer can add a solar panel to power the machine.

Competing Program

There has been some controversy regarding the project. Intel left the board earlier this year. The XO machines use AMD chips, not Intel ones. According to Bender, Intel was on the board only for a short while, “didn’t do anything,” then left. Intel joined the board in July of last year but left in January of this year in a dispute the two sides have been unwilling to discuss.

Intel has its own low-cost laptop, the Classmate, which has similar features to the XO, including the ability to operate in challenging environments. The Classmate is being used in some Asian countries. The Intel machines are part of that company’s World Ahead program, which Intel’s Web site says includes 200 digital inclusion programs in more than 60 countries, reaching more than 10 million people a year with computers and Internet connectivity.

Bender declined to discuss order projections for 2008, though he said he expects them to increase. There is continuing strong interest in developing countries as well as in some poorer sections of the United States. The city of Birmingham, Alabama in late December 2007 agreed to buy 15,000 of the machines for children in grades one through eight in city schools.

Several school districts and regional groups elsewhere in the United States have also looked at the initiative as a way to provide laptops to local students, Bender said.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

One Laptop Per Child: http://www.laptopgiving.org