OLPC Orders Reach One Million Milestone

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is close to making computer users out of a million children in developing nations.

The company building the inexpensive laptops for OLPC, Quanta Computer, has received an order for a million of the lime green notebooks, according to published reports.

The Taiwan company is the world’s largest manufacturer of notebook PCs. A pioneer in the use of mass production to cut costs, it is building the innovative OLPC units for about US$140 each.

OLPC organizers hopes the per-unit cost can be shaved to $100 as more laptops are ordered.

Negroponte’s Dream

The brainchild of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab researcher Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC aims to sell the cheap laptops — in batches of at least a million units per deal — to developing nations which would distribute them to schools and schoolchildren.

The little laptops run on the Linux operating system and sip electricity, largely due to their use of flash memory. They come with wireless Internet connectivity and video cameras.

OLPC has met mixed opinion. Some detractors believe the money would be better spent on life necessities including clean water, food, medicine and shelter.

Apple’s Steve Jobs once called it a “science project” and Intel’s Craig Barrett said the notebook was little more than “a gadget.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates famously denounced the laptop’s limited functionality and use of a manually-operated battery charging system by commenting, “Geez, get a decent computer.”

Shrugging Off the Criticism

OLPC persevered, however, and received the support of some similarly big names, including former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and huge enterprises such as Google, AMD and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Recently, Negroponte announced a $250 million deal with Libya to supply 1.2 million machines in June 2008. It could not be determined if the first order announced by Quanta will be for the Libyan project, but Negroponte recently told The New York Times he believed Libya would be the first country in the world to connect every student to the Internet with their own PC.

Published reports said Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi also expressed interest in buying computers for Chad, Niger and Rwanda.

Hidden Costs

The price of the laptops is only a small portion of the final costs related to the OLPC initiative, according to Mukul Krishna, global manager of Frost and Sullivan’s digital media practice.

“When you are talking about One Laptop Per Child, as an idea it is definitely very laud-worthy,” Krishna told TechNewsWorld. “People need to be very cognizant of all the good they are trying to do. But just handing a laptop off to someone in Sierra Leone is arguably not going to do that much.

“There are lots of places where they’ve got to spend a lot of resources in training them how to use it,” he added. “When you start looking at the scale and complexity of what they are really trying to achieve … it’s going to take a whole lot of time and be very difficult.”

“I have very mixed feelings about [the longterm feasibility and outcome of OLPC],” Steve Song, manager of Africa programs at Information and Communication Technologies for Development, told TechNewsWorld. “I think that Negroponte’s desire here is very noble, but I’m not sure that the initiative itself is the smartest way of going about solving the problem of delivering better education in developing countries.”

An Unexpected Side-Effect

Ironically, all the debate about the project’s pros and cons has actually done quite a bit to draw attention to the problem, said Song.

“It has stimulated the private sector and there is a race to produce low-cost PCs for developing countries,” he noted. “It’s also stimulated the debate about what is the meaning of introducing [personal computers] into the classrooms of developing countries. Is that the best thing you can do? The OLPC has become a lightning rod for these kinds of debates.”

The five-year goal of OLPC is to blanket undeveloped and developing nations with up to 500 million units. Negroponte envisions “every child on the planet” being online within 10 years.

Quanta believes it can ship up to 10 million units this year to the seven nations that have signed up: Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Thailand and Uruguay. While OLPC is a non-profit organization, Quanta isn’t. However, it plans on earning only a small amount of profit from the OLPC work.

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