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.
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.
The XO's unusual design consumes little power, runs open-source software and features a high-resolution screen readable in sunlight. It also has a wireless system that lets XOs form a local network to communicate with one another, even when no Internet connection is available.
Whether it succeeds, One Laptop Per Child is likely to go down in philanthropic history as a case study in the formidable challenges facing anyone trying to use technology to help the developing world.
Wayan Vota, a technology missionary who runs a Web site devoted to news about the group, said it has "a great dream and amazing technology but not much of an implementation plan." He worries that the outcome could resemble an ill-fated tractor program in Africa decades ago, which provided lots of tractors but little supporting infrastructure.
"You can't just drop in technology and leave," Vota said. "And every successful technology project in the developing world has shown you have to start at the grass roots. You need buy-in from end users and work up the change from the bottom. You get students and parents and teachers to support it, so they influence the education bureaucracy."
Bender disputed the notion that his group didn't do enough spadework, saying MIT researchers have been doing fieldwork since the 1960s. "We have been on the ground in virtually every corner of the planet for 40-plus years working on this problem and getting feedback." Bender said critics don't understand their vision for how laptops will change children's lives by helping them "learn about learning."
Negroponte agreed, saying that was a key difference between the MIT project and rival commercial ventures: "One Laptop Per Child is an education project. It is not a laptop project."
Negroponte and Bender believe that playing with their own laptops will engage children's intellects, spark creativity and provide an outlet for self-expression. Laptops, however, aren't teachers anymore than a vaccine is a cure, Bender said, citing an analogy between immunology and education popularized by Jonas Salk: "A vaccine is an agency that allows your body to manufacture a cure. And a laptop is not a cure, but an agency that allows teachers and students to engage in learning to construct learning."
Still, the program ascribes great potential to the machines. Intel and other rivals question whether that potential can be met without costly companion services.
For its part, Intel is doing charity work and commercial development in search of devices to create new markets for its microprocessors. Because most children in developing nations have little access to education, they are seen as a natural starting point. Intel developed a rival laptop, the Classmate PC, that leapfrogged the XO in sales earlier this year, with tens of thousands of units shipped to foreign countries since production started in March, even though they cost more than the XO.
"It's now in Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Libya and Pakistan," said Intel spokeswoman Agnes Kwan. "Most were purchased by governments."
By the end of the year, Intel will be running laptop pilot programs in schools in 30 countries with an eye to figuring out what kind of software services, Internet connectivity, local educational content and technical support are needed.
"We don't believe in just providing hardware," Kwan said. "Our experience is it needs to be end-to-end solution."
Intel launched a global education initiative a decade ago, and early last year announced a "World Ahead" program that committed $1 billion over five years to bring technology to developing countries. Intel also pledged to donate 100,000 computers to classrooms in poor countries over five years.
Microsoft, also eager to tap new markets, announced this year it would sell a stripped-down software package to emerging-country governments for $3 a student as part of its "Unlimited Potential" program to bring technology to the world's poor. Company executives also have been touting a separate plan to make cellphones that hook up to TVs and perform many laptop functions.
Yet another tack is coming from Stephen Dukker, founder of low-cost computing pioneer eMachines, who has started a firm called NComputing that aims to reduce computing costs through a new machine that lets children share computing resources.
Vota says all of these approaches and more are needed: "If there are a billion students in the world, there will be a billion solutions. There is a full spectrum of educational environments computing can be in, and they all have potential."