Laptop Program to Intel: Good Riddance

In January 2005, MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte announced the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program, a utopian attempt to improve education in poor communities through the design and global distribution of cheap, low-power laptops. Eventually, Negroponte said, the laptop would sell for a hundred dollars. The program was conceived on a grand scale: Negroponte initially claimed that the laptop would not go into production until governments worldwide had placed a total of five million orders.

But the million-unit orders never materialized. To date, Peru is the program's largest customer by a large margin, having ordered about 270,000 laptops. So in November 2007, the laptop, dubbed the XO, went into production anyway, at a cost of roughly $188 a unit. At about the same time, OLPC began its holiday-season Give 1 Get 1 drive: any donor who contributed $399 to the project would receive a complimentary XO, and a second XO would be sent to a poor community.

Some observers considered the drive a desperate attempt to inject cash into a floundering endeavor. Then, last week, Intel walked away from a tempestuous six-month partnership with OLPC, scotching the planned unveiling of an Intel version of the XO at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The main point of contention appears to have been Intel's attempts to sell its own cheap laptop, the Classmate PC, to governments that had already made provisional commitments to OLPC. OLPC claims that Intel violated a nondisparagement clause in its contract; Intel claims that the clause bound only the company's officers, not its sales force. The New York Times greeted the news with a headline announcing "The Demise of One Laptop per Child."

Earlier this week, Technology Review senior editor Larry Hardesty sat down with Walter Bender, OLPC's president for software and content, to discuss both Intel's withdrawal and the overall health of the initiative.

Technology Review: What effect does Intel's departure have on the program?

Walter Bender: Zero. Intel had contributed nothing. They contributed nothing to our current product, the XO. They contributed nothing to our learning models. They contributed nothing to the software. So their going away, so far, is a wash for us.

TR: Isn't this just the latest blow to the program?

WB: After what?

TR: After large contracts not materializing. Originally, wasn't there a minimum requirement for a government order?

WB: Originally, there was. We certainly made some mistakes along the way. And one mistake was to be a little bit too rigid in our model. Part of it was just based on some false assumptions on our part in terms of what kind of volume we needed to get things launched. And we thought that going to a few large orders was the best way to jump-start things, to prime the pump.

Some of us, our instinct was quite different. And that was to try to get a broad base and try to make this a grassroots, bottom-up launch instead of a top-down launch. Now, it turns out that we have both. And really, what we're after is any good idea. So on the one hand, we actually do have some large orders. Maybe not as large as we had originally hoped for, but we're going to do a quarter of a million laptops just in Peru. And we're doing something on a similar scale in Uruguay.

Those are examples of top-down. But then there's a lot of bottom-up. We just did about 100,000 bottom-up machines that we're going to be distributing through the "give" part of the Give 1 Get 1 program.

TR: What was the purpose of the Give 1 Get 1 program?

WB: Our purpose was twofold: one was to enable us to jump-start laptop programs in places that couldn't afford to start them themselves. So we're trying to jump-start Haiti, Rwanda, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Cambodia.

The second point is that we want to broaden the base of participation. There are a lot of people who want to participate in this program, who want to be part of this global-learning movement. So the number of people who are engaged in our mission has increased dramatically over the last month. We're finding that the community is really jumping in in ways that are beyond our expectations. So for example, now we've got 40 volunteers manning a phone bank, around the world.

TR: It's customer support?

WB: It is customer support. But it's customer support from the community instead of from us. Part of the reason we can make the laptop inexpensive is that we're not building those kinds of things into the cost structure. We're cutting all those corners. And the way that we can cut them is to design this so that people can have local ownership of the problem. And so, for example, quite literally--you can go to YouTube and see this in action--a nine-year-old can replace the motherboard on the laptop.

When the backlight in my Lenovo laptop dies, I have to send it back for factory repair, and they replace the whole display. And if it wasn't done through warranty--and the warranty costs me more than one of our laptops--I'd probably toss the laptop and buy a new one, because it wouldn't be worth it. If the backlight dies on our laptop, it is ten screws and a two-dollar part. And not only is it ten screws and a two-dollar part--that a nine-year-old can do the field repair on--but even without the backlight, the laptop still works.

TR: With natural illumination?

WB: Yeah. And that broken display that someone's going to toss in a landfill somewhere--the one I have from Lenovo has mercury in it. The one that we make doesn't. So we've thought about this stuff. This is not a hack. It's not an academic exercise. It's serious stuff, and it's stuff that we're doing better than anybody else right now. And we hope that the rest of the world learns from what we're doing and does better than us. But right now they aren't. But they will. And that's part of the plan.

TR: Does that mean you plan to license your technology to other manufacturers?

WB: That's something we've been struggling with. We need an economist to help us figure this one out. It's not clear to me that we wouldn't be better serving kids to make everything we've done be available to anybody for any purpose. And that might get more laptops to more kids faster.

TR: So from your perspective, this could still be a success even if you stopped manufacturing laptops and the technology found its way into a dozen different laptops ...

WB: Yep. But I think it's premature to do that. And the reason is quite simple: unless we keep the pressure on, the prices are going to go up, the efficiencies are going to go down, and we're going to be right back to the same "bigger, faster" model. We've got to keep the pressure on and keep the industry honest until we've really proven that this other way is viable. Because otherwise, next year's Intel machine will be more expensive and more power hungry, and that's not going to serve the needs of these kids.

TR: Okay, I have to say, I've played with the laptop, and it seems slow.

WB: Well, it's certainly slow compared to the laptop you carry around. But the metric you have to measure things by is not Grand Theft Auto III. The metric you want to measure things by is learning. The word processor keeps up with my typing. The video camera works just fine. The music programs work just fine. It's a perfectly adequate platform for kids for learning. Every decision we make is, How does this enhance the learning? And the bottom line is, if you can't turn it on since you can't power it, a fast processor doesn't do you very much good.

TR: There's also the question of whether laptops are really what governments should be sinking resources into.

WB: The way Nicholas [Negroponte] likes to put it is, substitute the word "education" for "laptop." And then ask, "Should we be giving these kids education?" "Nah, they don't need education! Education is a luxury. Why should we give them education?" What we're advocating is that the laptop is the most efficient way we know of of giving them an opportunity for real learning. It's not that we're interested in laptops; we're interested in learning. And it turns out that almost 50 years of research by people like [computer scientist and educational theorist] Seymour Papert has demonstrated that computation is a wonderful thing to think with. It's powerful stuff. And it's going to change these kids' lives dramatically for the better.

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