The quest to develop inexpensive computers for the masses is one of the most intriguing issues on the table at leading tech companies (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/12/06, "In Search of a PC for the People").
And MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte is leading the boldest effort yet to bring low-cost computing to the developing world. One Laptop Per Child, which Negroponte heads, is working with companies like semiconductor maker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), and Taiwanese manufacturer Quanta Computer (QUCPY) to roll out a Linux-based machine by November that costs roughly $140.
It will be easy to operate as well as inexpensive, offering schoolchildren of modest means a way to join the Internet age. But recently, OLPC suffered a big setback when an Indian government official criticized Negroponte's group and said India, for one, wasn't interested in what OLPC had to offer (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/28/06, "India Says No Thanks to the $100 Computer").
"SMALL INTERESTS". "We do not think that the idea of Professor Negroponte is mature enough to be taken seriously at this stage, and no major country is presently following this," said Sudeep Banerjee, India's Education Secretary, as quoted in the Indian press. "Even inside America, there is not much enthusiasm about this." A report in the British press also questioned OLPC's claims of headway in four countries in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Now, Negroponte is speaking out. In a recent interview with BusinessWeek.com via e-mail, he said that comments about dissatisfaction in India were leaked from an internal government report and that the Indian setback is the result of "an orchestrated campaign by small interests" in some parts of the country. "We are not sure of why this occurred."
He does have some theories, though, for the overall opposition that OLPC is encountering. "Considerable disinformation is coming from communities that do not want to see Linux on the desktop. There are also laptop interests that see us as competition," he points out.
TOO EXTRAVAGANT? Negroponte defends the OLPC but concedes that, even at a price of about $140, the first machines will be too expensive for India. "We are the first to admit that OLPC is early. One laptop per child in a country like India will only be real in about three or four years, when the laptop is below $50," he figures. "The purpose of launching now is to get the experience."
Like Negroponte, AMD's Dan Shine is accustomed to criticism of the kind coming from India. The AMD executive is director of the company's "50x15 initiative," so named because its goal is to get 50% of the world's population onto the Internet by 2015. AMD is a partner of OLPC and is working with other companies to provide different kinds of low-cost computers for emerging markets.
Not everybody thinks governments that have a hard time building schools for their children should pursue extravagances like PCs, says Shine. "Why are we even bothering? If we really want to help these people, we should help them get clean drinking water." He readily concedes that's a fair question.
WHOLE NEW WORLD. However, he says improving basic infrastructure is not where an IT company can add value. "We are a technology company. We could send money to help them get water. But what we are really trying to do is provide something more than dollars alone could. We believe that through the delivery, connectivity, and power of Internet access, people would be able to solve a lot of the problems that exist within their environment."
And, adds Shine, it's especially important to create ways for kids in poor countries to go online. "Just one session with a computer completely changes their perspective on what the world is," he says.
Another criticism is that there's no need for new products like the $100 laptop or AMD's Personal Internet Communicator, the low-power box-like machine that the company is selling as part of the 50x15 project, since prices for real PCs keep falling. When you can buy a notebook for $400 in the U.S., why not just focus on the ordinary PC and give up on new solutions?
POWER VACUUM. "Here in the U.S. we are seeing just last weekend a $399 laptop after rebate, with Windows. So people are saying why don't we just do that," says Shine. "But laptops are problematic. If any part breaks, the whole thing is broken." Moreover, he says, a PC that costs $400 in the U.S. could cost hundreds of dollars more in a developing country once you factor in taxes, transportation, and other costs.
And, he adds, a traditional PC doesn't answer some problems that are especially important in countries where infrastructure is often inadequate and power supply is not a given. "Some are based on tech that is a lot older and suck a lot of power," says Shine. "In some places, power will be generated from car batteries, cranks, or solar. It's an ongoing challenge and opportunity to look at these environments and calculate what the solutions are."
Negroponte is even more adamant that critics who say it's better to spend money on basic infrastructure for schools miss the point. "OLPC is basic infrastructure and the most economical of all," he writes. "The time it will take and the money needed to traditionally upgrade schools and train teachers worldwide is just huge.
"By contrast, think of a $100 laptop, amortized over five years, and connected for an average of $1 per month (which we know how to do). That is $32 per year, per student. You cannot beat that with 'basic infrastructure' built in the same old way, in environments where kids attend school for less than three hours per day and teachers often do not have a sixth grade education. You must leverage the children themselves to change elementary education."
REAL COMMITMENT. India is still a target in the medium term, but for now he's looking to countries like Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, and Thailand, where officials have been more encouraging. "We have moved on," he writes. "We hope India will participate in 2008. Since we are not in the sales or marketing business—we are a nonprofit humanitarian effort—we try to go where there is strong pull, not push."
And what of a report from ZDNet suggesting that the group's claims for those four countries are exaggerated? Negroponte says the critics are wrong. Argentina has signed a memorandum of understanding with OLPC, he says. Brazil has put money for OLPC machines into its budget for next year. And leaders in Thailand and Nigeria are committed to the project, he adds. "Those four, Brazil, Nigeria, Thailand, and Argentina, feel pretty real to me, blogosphere or not," he writes.