098 – Third world PCs – 2005

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It’s an education project, not a laptop project. Nicholas Negroponte

Nicholas Negroponte earned his bachelors and masters from MIT in architecture, though his research had focused on computer aided design.  In1967 he founded the MIT Architecture Machine Group to look at human-computer symbiosis.  In 1985 he co-founded the MIT Media Lab, a computer science laboratory that specialised in new media.

Negroponte became an angel investor.  In 1993 he was the first to fund Wired magazine.  As a columnist he developed a regular feature using the strapline ‘move bits, not atoms’.  He collected his thoughts in his 2005 book ‘Being Digital’ which was a bestseller issued in twenty languages.

November 2005 At the World Summit on the Information Society he presented his notion of a $100 laptop computer for students, particularly in the Third World.  A number of Third World countries reacted negatively to the project believing this to be more about Americanisation.  Lee Felsenstein also commented that the approach was ‘imperialistic’.

Negroponte called his project OLPC, one laptop per child, and the PC was named the Children’s Machine or CM1.  The OLPC project is a non-profit organisation supported by AMD, eBay, Google, Red Hat and others.  It draws heavily on the thinking of Alan Kay and Seymour Papert.

Quanta designed and manufactured a version of the CM1 called the XO-1.  OLPC sold the XO-1 in 250,000 unit lots to Third World country governments who would then free-issue them to children via edu cational establishments.  The project kept prices low by using open-source Fedora Linux OS and flash memory rather than a hard drive.

The XO-1 was planned to cost $188 at launch in 2006, then to drop to a $100 price point in 2008 and to have a $50 price tag by 2010.  However the economic downturn reduced OLPC funding and the price therefore stuck quite resiliently at $199. 

A G1G1 campaign promoted the notion of ‘give one and get one’.  When one bought one for yourself a second was supplied free of charge to a Third World child.  Fewer than 100,000 took up the G1G1 deal in 2008.  However laptops were delivered to Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Gaza, Haiti, Mongolia, Rwanda and a number of Pacific islands under this scheme.

In 2007 deals were signed with Mexico, Peru and Uruguay; in 2008 with Colombia, Ghana and Peru; in 2009 with Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Uruguay; in 2010 with Argentina and Peru; in 2011 with Colombia and Paraguay.

OLPC needed three million unit sales to make the effort viable; it has achieved 60% of that with some 1.8 million laptops distributed through the scheme. 

There is some criticism that the project does seem to be content simply to supply the laptops without their taking on any obligation for any subsequent training users.

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