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India says no thanks to the $100 laptop


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July 28, 2006

India says no thanks to the $100 laptop

Bruce Einhorn

Just a few days after the announced departure of the Intel exec overseeing the company’s efforts to launch low-cost PCs for the developing world (see this Asiatech blog post), another project has suffered what may turn out to be a much bigger setback. MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte’s ambitious plan to create a $100 laptop has won lots of attention; his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) non-profit, working with Taiwanese PC maker Quanta Computer, is working to come out with its first models by the end of the year. (See this story I did a while back in BusinessWeek, for instance.) But according to a wire story picked up in the Indian newspaper The Hindu , the Indian government – one of the largest would-be customers for the machine – has decided that it’s not interested in buying them. Worse for Negoponte, the Indian official who announced the news didn’t hesitate to criticize the whole idea of the $100 laptop. Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee’s view: “We do not think that the idea of Prof Negroponte is mature enough to be taken seriously at this stage and no major country is presently following this. Even inside America, there is no much enthusiasm about this.” Ouch.

The criticism from India is certainly not the end of the project. And it’s important to remember that there’s a history of bad blood between the Indian government and MIT. Years ago, the two tried to set up an Indian version of MIT’s Media Lab, but the project flop, embarrassing New Delhi and creating bad feelings among many in India’s elite toward Negroponte. ZDNet UK points out that the setback is just the latest problem that MIT’s Media Lab has had in India. Negroponte, according to ZDNet, is "persona non grata" in India because of the bad feelings that came from the aborted attempt to set up a Media Lab in the country. That, says ZDNet, puts MIT at a big disadvantage: “There are plenty of large technology organisations that are making an impact in the developing world with, frankly, much better track records of operating with governments, NGOs and individuals in the field.”

That said, I think it’s too early to write the obituary for the OLPC project – or for plans by Intel and others. There is certainly a need to provide low-cost computing for children and their parents in developing countries. But clearly selling the idea to decision makers in those places is going to take a lot more work.

06:38 PM

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It is certainly true that there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm on part of the government agencies in India towards the idea of OLPC. It can very well be understood in the context of the other pressing needs of a rapidly develping economy such as India.

What is required more urgently is investment in (Quality) basic education infrastructure which can cater to the bursting children population in the country. I cannot imagine a child studying in his $100 laptop under a leaking school roof or worse under the shades of a tree - shirtless and wearing his half pyjamas. In a country where nearly one-third of the population goes un-educated the more pressing need is to ensure that all the children have ready access to elementary education rather than indulging in fancy concepts such as OLPC.

Clearly the OLPC idea has some vested interests of companies such as Intel who would like to increase their sales under the garb of so called social projects such as OLPC.

RIP OLPC in India.

Posted by: Shankar Kambam at August 1, 2006 01:51 AM

These are pathetic comments coming from Indian diplomats but then that's Indian bureaucracy for the World. They simply want to follow the US or developed countries without taking the opportunities that are available at hand. It could also be to appease a certain section of the Indian businesses who are presently giving out $200 computers. I sincerely hope they revert their stance soon.

Posted by: Shyam at August 1, 2006 01:59 AM

Well, that's India for you. Nobody can trust the beureuacracy in India. They expected MIT to present the media lab in a silver plate to them. When MIT failed to do that, they blame MIT. Now, they do the same with the $100 laptop.

Posted by: Adi at August 1, 2006 09:45 AM

I think US$100 is not enough to buy a really functional laptop unless government heavily subsidizes the product for all poor students. Here I have a better idea. I have a pending Patent application US20060061546 titled "Handbag/purse based combination electronic gadgets", in which I propose to integrate handbag/schoolbag/purse with laptop/pda by using wide surface areas of schoolbag and the like for display(LCD sreen) and imbedding all circuit/accessories inside the layer of schoolbag and bottom portion of the bag such that the schoolbag can be used to carry normal books/stationary as usual, yet also have basic computer functions. I strongly believe that this is a better solution than the current one initiated by MIT. I also believe that it makes more sense to susidize, if governments need to do for their pupils and students to avoid digital gap gradually getting worse. For more information about this pending patent application, anybody can search USPTO PGPUB Production Database. However, you need a tiff file reader to be able to see the drawings. I can provide if somebody is interested in this application.

Posted by: Chiou-muh Jong at August 1, 2006 11:19 AM

OLPC perhaps was a good idea or a bad one - that time will tell. One has been hearing about such a move and the product for a very very log time but even the prototype of the product is not avaialable...leave apart what functions, it can do.

I am also not sure as to why we are criticising the government for I have not heard any such move as to discredit the product. secondly and more importantly if the product is good and it works then it will have a commercial success ..even without the aid or support of the government. People buy gadgets as they feel that the gadgets can enhance the value of their lives or thier children....let the product be the judge.

Posted by: rajeev bajpai at August 1, 2006 11:50 AM

That is one bombastic official's comment on the project. So please do not purport that as the opinion of India as a whole. There has been no serious debate about this issue. And the Indian press is still too immature and unfocused to carry out such a conversation. But he does make an important point that there is a much bigger need for well-paid teachers at the primary and secondary level than computers.

India is a federal democracy, so the OLPC project can be picked up by other actors in the Indian landscape. That the project is not picked up by the commie-infested Human resources ministry, does not mean that individual states and organisations cannot or will not do it.

Posted by: Vishwas at August 1, 2006 11:54 AM

While some of you are quick in criticizing the Indian bureaucracy, this time it has got it right. The problem here is providing quality education to the kids in India and Negroponte's $100 laptop is not going to do it. Do you really expect/want the Indian government to spend millions of dollars on laptops (which btw, no one knows how user friendly will be) when it can be better used in bringing kids to school and teach them the multiplication table instead of Windows VISTA or linux?

While we are at it: Don't make it a rule to blame bureaucracy for everything. Sometimes it can get it right.

Posted by: Amit at August 1, 2006 11:57 AM

I think $100 for a laptop is still costly for a poor student in India, unless Indian government subsidizes the price. But, the reason that the indian government has given citing other countries that has not adopted this policy is pathetic, showing its inability to make the first move.

Posted by: Cathy Katz at August 1, 2006 12:42 PM

The laptop for children between 5th grade and 10th grade should cost only $20 and weigh less than 1 lbs. I think $100 used to be a good number 5 years back. But our technology has changed so much that we can make laptop with basic softwares for $20. I understand the goal is shooting beyond the moon, but it is certainly possible.

Posted by: LINSON at August 1, 2006 01:33 PM

I strongly agree with Shankar when he said india's priorities are different. most westerners dont understand what india lacks and what it desperately needs help on. over a hunder year ago, a saint called Swami Vivekanada went to Chicago for an international religions conference wherein he said, you dont have to come and preach india about god and religion for we have been teaching the world about those things for over a 1000 years. but what we need is bread for our children, shelter and healthcare. over 100 years have gone by and nothing has changed in india. what our children need now are food, shelter, healthcare and education, basic one at it. definitely not a $100 laptop. i will give you an example, there are a few social organizations here that provide all the above 4 to one child in india for each $10 a month that you can donate. if a government will do so, it can do it for one third that cost because it holds free real estate. now you know what's our priority.

Posted by: Ram at August 1, 2006 03:06 PM

Hi, i fully agree with the naysayers of the laptop. Surely the needs of our country are much basic. Also i do not think this is about the vested interests of Intel or any other business organization.

Even if Intel wants to sell more computers and create a new generation of indians that are familiar with its brand, they surely are not that stupid to imagine that kids would know how to use Windows without knowing how to read and write.

Frankly speaking we should not care where and how our children are educated. If they have the education with the benefit of Intel, surely they will have the common sense to choose between Intel/ AMD/ others based on cost/ performance when they grow up.

I think what is the the crunch issue here is that wether the Indian government has any real reasons to refuse this program or is it just some old rivalries? Hopefully somebody would explain that.

Otherwise it doesn't make a difference how much money Negropente or his cohorts stuff in their pockets (directly or indirectly) if indian children learn to read or write. And the beauracrats should realize the same!! But would politicians and beauracrats who try to profit from the death of their citizens (as has been visible throughout the Mumbai bombing case) really talk sense???

Posted by: Ashu at August 1, 2006 05:12 PM

hi Bruce, i was a little dissappointed that you skimmed the surface of the MIT venture and why it went kaput. to add credibility its important to understand that. there were serious issues there which made the Indian Govt queasy about another encounter with Dr Negroponte. how about delving into those?

regarding the $ 100 laptop, depends on which segment we are looking at, the bottom of pyramid kids certainly dont need a laptop to study, a blackboard on the table and a full meal will be good. for the middle of pyramid, a laptop focused on educational segment will be good but then, they should get something that is low cost but is really fully functional. the OLPC does not seem that.

wanting to create something for the poor / lower than the creamy segment of the market is a good idea and getting large organizations to re-work their research, pricing, features to get more products and the competition going in this segment can only benefit everyone. look at CK Prahlad and his theories for starters. we would not have had a PC in every home if large corporations were kept out of the equation and they had not beaten down the product for mass production...

Posted by: Aurita at August 4, 2006 12:13 AM

Give a computer to a child in an indian village - a kid with 6 siblings who have not had anything to eat, no clean water, no electricity!!! What is the child going to do with the computer???

Posted by: v bosco at August 5, 2006 12:14 PM

I agree with Auritha, Indian children need basic educational needs like schools with proper roofs, books, blackboards. I never required a laptop to finish my education, so why would anybody else require a laptop to finish their basic education?

Posted by: Sharath at August 9, 2006 01:21 PM

Initial design of the laptop looks more like a lunch box than a serious laptop. Similiar experiment by IIT was a big flop, reason being the so-called Simputer was second grade. However a $200 desktop is quite successful as it provides all the functionality of a normal desktop computer (though at lesser speed).

Posted by: sachin at August 16, 2006 03:44 PM

I don't know why every Indian has to blame the Indian system and still cherish living in it!

Nicholas if he earns $100 a year will first dream of a loaf of bread, a place to stay and adequate clothing!! Then comes education, et al. You go give our have-not children a laptop they (or surely the parents) will sell it in the grey market and have three sqaure meals (if the deal was well made though!) $100 for a laptop is still a luxury for lower income groups in India.

So understanding India and its priorities is a must before assigning to such a program. Atleast stop criticising India for every step it takes and i mean it!

Posted by: Vallabh at August 17, 2006 08:26 AM

There is not a single credible initiative taken by a technology house or otherwise that has had a significant impact on the lower socioeconomic strata. The reasons are human greed and no strong will.

Posted by: Gnaneswar Joshi at August 21, 2006 10:17 AM

A 100 dollar laptop will certainly be of interest in some African countries where computer prices are so high, and beyond the means of even the lower middle class, and certainly the poor.

Granted some of these countries may have similar or worse socio-economic issues, however, the desire to be computer literate certainly provides the impetus for some of the poor in Africa to "pay" or borrow to get their children computer education.

Don't forget - lots of very successful people from India and Africa have made it to the top of their professions, starting from leaking classrooms, lack of text books and once a day meals etc..

Posted by: Mark Aggrey at August 30, 2006 05:20 PM

I think there is enough debate on $100 laptop. What India needs is quality basic education and not the computers at nascent stages. What's a kid going to do with computer if he doesn't even basic maths knowledge? And also note that Indian kids have been winners in global science fairs.

Posted by: Rajiv at September 8, 2006 08:38 AM

It is a good news that now poor childrens also will enjoy using laptops .

Posted by: sami shaikh at January 2, 2007 02:12 AM

I think that CURRENTLY in India, being largely poor and illiterate needs more functional primary schools. Only after the country has a literate poor population, does the idea of a 100$ laptop makes sense. However, comments of the Indian Beaureaucrat should not have been historically motivated.

Posted by: souvik at February 14, 2007 03:36 AM

Hey,

We need both - a $100 computer and basic education.. There are still so many who are educated but are not connected to the world. A $100 would solve that problem.

At the same time, we have so many children who don't know to read and write.

Regd 100% literacy, let me tell you that anyone who is able to write his/her name is deemed literate... I think, it is time when indian govt start releasing figures on literacy levels as well...

Posted by: Ashish at February 14, 2007 03:23 PM

I think one way of looking at it is to ask, 'What is the role of the $ 100 laptop?' It is to put technology in the easy reach of the masses. You cant view the laptop in isolation but have to view it in combination with the learning tools, methodology of teaching and creative possibilities for learning that it offers. If the entire package in combination, reduces the total cost of education or makes it more efficient at the same cost, the whole initiative is worth it.

Posted by: Mauli at March 5, 2007 04:03 PM

why not sell them a $1,000 laptop and get 10 of them to share, the plan seams to be just as sensible, they can all learn between themselves as a group as well making them adopt more of a group learning attitude. (cut training costs)

Posted by: Jim bob at March 8, 2007 11:16 AM

the OLPC project has been delayed again. while lot of hue and cry has been made on the importance to the emerging market, the delays are frustrating and perhaps the technical feasibility of such a product is itself in question.

now i understand that the product availability itself has been pushed to Q4/07.

the story need to be followed up again...??

Posted by: rajeev bajpai at April 20, 2007 02:34 AM

Anyhow when the $100 laptop is out in the global market, it will be in the Indian shores too. People who would want to buy will buy it.If the manufacturers dreamt big of selling the $100 laptop to Indian masses throught the Indian government and now licking their wounds, is not a big issue to argue. Well a full restructuring of the education policy in India needs to be done if India Inc has to susteain its growth rate

Posted by: CK at May 8, 2007 12:11 AM


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