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On a Laptop Mission for Kids

Children at a public elementary school in Villa Cardal, Uruguay, use laptops from the One Laptop Per Child program.
Children at a public elementary school in Villa Cardal, Uruguay, use laptops from the One Laptop Per Child program. (By Marcelo Hernandez -- Associated Press)

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By Leslie Walker
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 18, 2007

For two weeks this month, Americans are being invited to join a global marathon -- the uphill effort to take 21st-century computing to poor children around the world.

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The invitation comes from One Laptop Per Child, a nonprofit group founded in 2005 by academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. The MIT gang is trying to jump-start unexpectedly slow laptop computer sales abroad by appealing to charitable impulses at home.

Through Nov. 26, it is offering to sell anyone in the United States and Canada two of its bright green XO laptops for $399. While one goes to the buyer , the other will go to a child in a developing country.

"We want to broaden the scope of the program, to engage more people and let them participate," said Walter Bender, the nonprofit's president.

The unusual "Give 1. Get 1." marketing campaign ( http://www.xogiving.org) is a departure from the original distribution plan promoted by the group's founder, new-media guru Nicholas Negroponte. It called for no sales in the United States or to the public, only to governments in large developing nations. The sales force was mainly Negroponte, who spent the past several years flying around the world to meet with heads of state and announcing handshake commitments in Brazil, Thailand, Nigeria and other countries.

For various reasons, those agreements yielded fewer laptop orders than Negroponte wanted. Changes in political leadership were partly to blame, he said, but the bigger factor turned out to be fierce competition from the tech industry at home after Intel and Microsoft joined the race, launching for-profit ventures to sell computing technology to developing nations.

"So in August we came up with another strategy. We said instead of going to big governments, let's go to the people," Negroponte said. "The truth is I don't know whether this is going to generate 100,000 laptops or a million, but it doesn't matter. It doesn't take a lot of snow to generate an avalanche."

Negroponte is hoping his campaign will allow laptops to reach poorer, more remote nations because the subsidies no longer have to come exclusively from the governments in target countries. Rwanda, Haiti and Cambodia were among the first to sign up to receive Give 1, Get 1 computers.

Uruguay and Peru, meanwhile, were the first to place orders for the XO laptops that went into mass production near Shanghai a few weeks ago. Uruguay ordered 100,000 laptops and Peru ordered 250,000. The machines cost $187 to make, but Negroponte is hoping the price will drop closer to the original $100 target as production volume rises.

The lightweight machines have been winning positive reviews from the media but a fair amount of ridicule from American tech titans, including Intel Chairman Craig Barrett and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. Barrett belittled the XO laptop as a "$100 gadget." Gates ridiculed its hand-crank method of generating power, saying, "Geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you're not sitting there cranking the thing while you're trying to type."

Negroponte counterattacked early this year, publicly accusing the tech leaders of trying to undercut his program because it didn't use Intel microprocessors or Microsoft's operating system. In July, Barrett softened his stance and joined the board of One Laptop Per Child. While the XO laptops originally only contained microprocessors from AMD, Intel's chief rival, by next April some of the XO machines will run on Intel chips.

"We are in the honeymoon phase with Intel," Negroponte said, chuckling.

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