Painful lessons from a laptop storm

The One Laptop Per Child project promised new educational possibilities for children in the developing world, but it has not been without its problems. John Elkington and Jodie Thorpe report.

This article poses two questions, and here is the first: how helpful is the unsupervised use of computers to children in poor countries? A great deal hangs on the answer. To test the theory that, wherever they may live, children benefit from early exposure to computers, the Indian training company NIIT developed its “Hole in the Wall” project, installing a computer kiosk in the middle of a Delhi slum and recording the experiment with cameras. The results were astounding. In just a few hours, local children, mainly illiterate and unschooled, had learned how to manipulate the mouse.  Within weeks they were using applications, changing desktop settings and browsing the web.

Which is where the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project comes in. Conceived by Nicholas Negroponte, the head of the media lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and announced at the World Economic Forum in January 2005, OLPC designed a laptop to be used by poor children worldwide. While the price tag of just under US$200 is well beyond the original vision of $100 per computer, the laptop, known as the XO, has a number of highly unusual features.  For example, it is rugged, waterproof and virtually indestructible. It can be used in bright sunlight, has a wide wireless range, long battery life and uses flash memory rather than a hard drive. Even more importantly for young people, it looks like a smart toy, with a number of kid-friendly features such as music-composing and chat programs.

The laptops are being manufactured by Quanta Computer, a company from Taiwan, and a handful of countries have begun to buy the computers including Peru, Uruguay and Mexico—where local businessman and billionaire Carlos Slim has purchased 50,000 laptops for schoolchildren. A number of other countries are starting with small pilots including Brazil, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Thailand.

In addition to marketing to developing world governments, OLPC has trialled a program called “Give One Get One” in the US, where customers pay $399 to buy one laptop, and send another to a developing country such as Rwanda or Afghanistan. Through this programme 160,000 laptops have already been sold, generating $35 million in sales.

OLPC is not without its detractors, however—and the criticisms go wider than the production delays and the (not unsurprising) failure to achieve Negroponte’s original target of a $100 price tag. For one thing, there are concerns over the potential environmental impacts, notably due to the use of hazardous materials common in computers, although OLPC counters that it is using as many environmentally-friendly materials as possible and that the computer will comply with EU legislation on hazardous substances. They also note that the computer is extremely energy efficient.

A tougher challenge has come from some developing countries themselves, who say that the project reflects an overly American mindset. They point to other imperatives, such as clean water or schools, and argue that they cannot justify such a substantial expenditure on a venture that is as yet unproven when confronted with more immediate needs for funding. 

Meanwhile, the competition is building. In India, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has announced plans to make laptops for schoolchildren costing just $10 and reportedly have designs submitted by academics that would cost under $50 to produce even in small volumes. Whether or not India manages to produce such laptops, the fact remains that OLPC was a visionary move that started a trend for low-cost computing. Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, believes that more countries will eventually move to purchase inexpensive computers. "Nicholas [Negroponte] has ignited a completely new situation, so the world should be grateful to him," Yunus commented.

Given the nature of capitalism, it was only a matter of time before major IT players picked up on the opportunity to develop and market inexpensive computers.  Unsurprisingly, OLPC initially was met with hostility from Microsoft, because OLPC had chosen open source Linux software. Since then, however, Microsoft and a number of other firms—including AMD, Google, Quanta Computer and Intel—have joined the initiative.  

Intel, however, recently dropped out, claiming “philosophical differences.”  Significantly, perhaps, the giant microchip company has also developed a low-cost laptop aimed at children, called the “Classmate”. While sitting on OLPC’s board, Intel was caught undercutting OLPC’s deals with a number of governments in an effort to promote sales of its own product.  In one particularly unpleasant case, an Intel sales representative was caught criticising the XO when meeting the Peruvian government, which had just placed a large order.

So, the second question is this: is this simply the everyday cut-and-thrust to be expected in competitive capitalist markets? Perhaps so, except that there is another piece of the story: Intel had specifically, legally agreed never to undermine the XO. It had also agreed to collaborate on software and a processor for the XO, which it did not do, according to OLPC. The problem here it seems is not competition, but unfair, unlawful competition.  Inevitably, Intel’s behaviour attracted highly critical media coverage from mainstream business magazines like Fortune through to technology sector blogs.

Nicholas Negroponte continues to insist that OLPC and Intel are a bit like the World Food Programme and McDonald’s: two organisations built for completely different purposes that do not need to clash directly. Maybe so, but this story provides a timely warning to those who imagine that partnerships between big companies and small not-for-profits will always run smoothly. On the evidence of the Intel-OLPC controversy, innovative not-for-profit organisations and social enterprises aiming to work with major corporations should advance with hope in their hearts, but also make sure that they have access to excellent – and affordable – lawyers.

John Elkington is Founder and Non-Executive Director at SustainAbility and Founding Partner at Volans Ventures

Jodie Thorpe is the Manager of SustainAbility’s Emerging Economies Program. The OLPC story is told in John Elkington’s new book, The Power of Unreasonable People (Harvard Business Press, 2008).    

Homepage photo by Faiper