Still Waiting for That $100 Laptop?

The latest sign that Nicholas Negroponte’s cheapo-computer scheme will never work.

Children in Uruguay use low-cost laptop computers

It’s been nearly two years since MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte revealed his ambitious plan to provide kids in developing countries with $100 laptops. Today, the One Laptop per Child foundation has announced that its cheapo device (now officially dubbed the “XO laptop”) will be made available to the American and Canadian consumer market for a two-week period in November. For $400, you can participate in the “Give One, Get One” program—your purchase gets you one laptop for yourself and another that will be sent to a student in the developing world.

This announcement is a fundamental shift for the project, and it’s the latest signal that the $100 laptop project will never work as it’s been conceived. In 2005, the OLPC team stipulated that only governments could buy the devices and that each country had to buy a minimum quantity of 1 million laptops. Not a single nation went for the deal, so earlier this year, OLPC reduced the minimum buying quantity to 250,000. More recently, that minimum quantity has dropped to 100,000. How many countries have signed up now? Still zero.

OLPC officials claim there are countries that have bought laptops but that they will formally announce the purchases “in their own time.” If countries are really lining up to buy these laptops, though, then how come the foundation says only 120,000 machines will be made by the end of this year?

Furthermore, two years after the “$100 laptop” was announced, you’d expect the hardware would be cheaper—after all, the laptop you bought two years ago probably costs a decent percentage less than when you bought it. Instead, the organization now says the laptops will cost closer to $200. (They’re $188, to be precise.) Negroponte has said that the organization is “targeting $50 in 2010.” In two years, the cost has nearly doubled. You really think it’ll be down to double digits anytime soon? (Also consider that if countries aren’t lining up in droves as originally planned, economies of scale won’t kick in to keep the price down.)

Part of the laptop’s increased cost, admittedly, is the result of some new and innovative technology: a low-power chipset, a very long-lasting battery (six hours at heavy use, days when used in low-power mode), and a sweet screen that can be viewed in direct sunlight, unlike just about every other commercially available laptop. (And yes, it can still be powered with an optional hand crank.) OLPC CTO Mary Lou Jepsen, who designed many parts of the new hardware, told me that it’s “the lowest-power laptop ever made.”

While many of those innovations are noteworthy, it’s clear the OLPC team has spent a lot of time thinking about the hardware and very little figuring out how the laptop will be used in the classroom. Negroponte advocates an educational theory pioneered by his colleague Seymour Papert called constructionism, wherein students learn on their own with hardly any influence from teachers. He’s been known to disdain the impact of teachers in the developing world, saying that “as many as one-third of the teachers never show up at school,” and “some percent show up drunk.” Rather than lean on educators, Negroponte says, it’s best to “give the child an opportunity to have a bigger role in his or her learning.”

Negroponte’s plan to heal the world with laptops is well-meaning but fundamentally flawed. What good is a laptop in the middle of rural Thailand when electricity, much less Internet access, are spotty at best? Rather than getting laptops into the hands of every schoolchild across the world, why not start with an intermediate step? Probably because One Blackboard per Child or One Teacher per Classroom just doesn’t sound as sexy.

Even if you believe that computers can solve the world’s educational woes, it’s hard to see how the “Give One, Get One” program will help OLPC blanket the world with cheap laptops. Getting Americans and Canadians to subsidize computers for 100,000 students really isn’t going to do a whole lot of good in the long run. If Negroponte really wants to make a difference, he should eliminate the educational angle and the two-for-one gimmick and simply sell a laptop that goes head-to-head with other low-cost devices.

While the One Laptop per Child program has been spinning its wheels, other companies have started developing competing products. Not long after OLPC started building its machine, Intel came out with its $249 to $549 Classmate PC, which is currently being tested around the globe. A company called Asus has also announced the $250 to $300 Eee PC, a laptop that’s due to ship stateside later this month. So, how about we eliminate the middlemen and simply unleash OLPC’s laptops on people who want to buy them? Maybe the XO will hold its own, and maybe it will flop. Let the best computer win.

Unfortunately for OLPC, capitalists are excellent at wringing the fat out of design-manufacture-distribution systems. The nonprofit sector? Not so much. Furthermore, it’s hard to think of an example of consumer technology aimed at the developing world that didn’t begin as a product for the developed world. The telephone, the PC, and the mobile phone (which has arguably had the most technological impact on the developing world in the last decade) were all designed for early-adopting business people who were willing to pay top dollar, thus subsidizing the product for everyone else a few years down the road. Everyone wants a cheaper laptop, but it may take a couple more years to crack the $100 barrier. That will be the case even for those of us who can afford it.