$100 laptop project is 'fundamentally flawed'

$100 laptop project is 'fundamentally flawed'

Summary: The head of one of the largest charitable suppliers of re-conditioned PCs claims there are some basic problems with creating a bespoke laptop for the developing world

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) scheme is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the IT industry, according to Tony Roberts, chief executive and founder of UK charity Computer Aid International.

Speaking to ZDNet UK last week, Roberts claimed that although he would be delighted if the OLPC scheme proved a success, he had severe reservations about the strategy underpinning the project.

"The real reason that this won't be successful is a misunderstanding of the history of technology. They are looking to introduce a non-standard, untested platform... which they will only sell to governments," he said. "The decision to buy will be made by politicians who are elected every five years, and politicians generally don't take the decision to risk their political future on non-standard technology."

The project aims to develop a portable PC for use by children in the developing world for around $100 (£50). The price has risen since the scheme was first announced to around $135 to $140.

Speaking at the Red Hat Summit earlier this month, the head of the OLPC project, Nicholas Negroponte, said that past attempts to give children in developing countries access to PCs have failed because the children did not see the computers as their own, and as a result did not engage with them as expected.

"People say, 'We just gave a hundred thousand PCs to schools, and they are still sitting in their boxes.' The problem is that you gave them to the wrong people — the kids don't think they are theirs, and see them as government property, or they are locked up after school," Negroponte said.

But Roberts, who as well as heading up Computer Aid spent time as an academic lecturing on the historical introduction of new technologies into societies, said that the OLPC project was also distracting attention from other worthwhile technology projects in the developing world. "At the UN World Summit [where the OLPC prototype was first displayed last year] there were so many exciting projects that didn't get any attention because all eyes were on the OLPC," said Roberts.

Computer Aid has just celebrated shipping its 70,000 PC to the developing world. The organisation, founded in 1998, refurbishes used PCs, routers, printers and other technology. It then ships them to a network of organisations in the developing world where they are distributed to schools, universities and community groups.

The organisation is looking to expand its remit to include working with local health clinics to provide e-learning systems for nurses, and tele-medicine capabilities. Medical specialists in the developing world are often limited to the capital city, so by providing more detailed patient information, medical staff can reduce the need to move critical patients.

Computer Aid is also involved in a joint project with the UK Met Office to create the infrastructure to allow weather information to be collected and analysed locally in the developing world. At the moment, information collected from local weather stations is sent to a central office to be analysed and the information is then fed back.

But, according to Roberts, the centralised system takes too long, so Computer Aid is helping to equip the local stations with the means to interpret the information and relay it to the community more rapidly. "This information is critical, it can be the difference between life or death or someone's livelihood but at the moment, the systems just don't work," he said.

Computer Aid is also planning a charity bike ride next February in Kenya to raise awareness of the organisation's work in that country.

If you would like to donate your businesses PCs you can find more information through the Bridge the Digital Divide project being run by Computer Aid and ZDNet UK's parent company, CNET Networks.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Andrew Donoghue

About Andrew Donoghue

"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism."

Hunter S. Thompson

Andrew Donoghue is a freelance technology and business journalist with over ten years on leading titles such as Computing, SC Magazine, BusinessGreen and ZDNet.co.uk.

Specialising in sustainable IT and technology in the developing world, he has reported and volunteered on African aid projects, as well as working with charitable organisations such as the UN Foundation and Computer Aid.



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  • " They are looking to introduce a non-standard, untested platform..."

    HMM... i did not realize that there was a standard for laptops...?? untested platform..? i did not realize linux was an untested platform...

    im windering how they are getting around licensing... do they expect that all donated pc's will be a dell, gateway, hp... which have that OEM licensing sticker attached...?

    or do they actually use an alternative OS..or FOSS soatware..? or are they subsidized by a certain monopoly for their OS and software licenses... their website says nothing about software.... just hardware specs...
  • i actually got my answer with alittle more reading on their site...

    " As standard our machines do not come with operating systems or with any applications software. You must obtain and install this yourself. This is because it will be cheaper for you to obtain it than for us to buy it here. If you require assistance sourcing Microsoft products in your own country then we may be able to help.

    Computer Aid International is, however, a Microsoft Authorised Refurbisher, which allows us to install a Microsoft Windows 2000 licensed operating system only, at an additional cost of
  • "They are looking to introduce a non-standard, untested platform..."

    Ummm, the platforms looks quite a lot like the Jhon Bon Neuman computer architecture (CPU+Memory+Input/Output devices) - the same one used for the last 60 years - with Linux, an standard Unix variant OS -the same one used for last 30 year - with standard keyboard, mouse and windowing enviroment for user interaction - the same one used since first Mac computers 25 years ago-. Comunication is done through TCP/IP, the most widely used communication protocol to this date -let call it "The Internet"-.

  • We at ComputerCorps www.computercorps.org also believe that sending refurbished computers is a better way to adress the issue. We work with Rotary International to get the computers to those in need.

    All the best.

    Bill Cadwallader
    Vice President
  • Refurbished PC programs are fundamentally flawed in the sense that none of the machines they provide are in any way capable of surviving for any reasonable amount of time in harsh environments found in developing countries.
    A device, such as the OLPC's $100 Laptop, specifically built to be used in such environments while still providing standard modern functionality (ruggedized for 'all terrain' usage, friendly, portability, integrated storage, integrated communications, ease of use, low learning curve, etc.) is far better suited for the job than a full blown desktop/laptop machine loaded full with god knows what sucking up large amounts dirt, and power that isn't available in most people's homes let alone in public places.
    OLPC's $100 laptop plan; It's cheaper, can be distributed more widely and in larger quantities and can be supported far easier.

    You'll find that people from developing countries are very eager to learn and very thankful for anything you bring them - how much does a smile (have to) cost?

    What most of the critics of the OLPC project are forgetting is, that once our target developing countries have evolved far enough indicating readyness for more, the technology and people behind these $100 machines will have evolved with them and new and better equipment will find it's way to the places that are waiting for them.
    There's a right time and a right place for the right equipment.

    Right now those poor children in developing countries really aren't looking forward to refurbished desktop PC's; most of them can't or aren't allowed to go to school but have to work to provide and survive instead, or either don't get to use that machine at all because of lack of resources such as decent permanent power sources for desktop power hogs, only being allowed to use it for a short while during class, or simply selling it because what little money they get off of selling it will put food on their table for a day or two.
    Do you realise that most of the refurbished equipment arrives in a box and will remain that way for many more reasons including but not limited to the ones I already mentioned?
    How good does that idea feel?

    With the OLPC project i'm far more confident that it will succeed where refurbished equipment will fail in aforementioned areas, simply because the OLPC people think before they do and realise there's a consequence to each choice made - therefore trying to optimize their product for the target instead of the other way around.
    Big corporations like Microsoft whom are trying to be so humanitarian all of a sudden shortly after the appearance of the OLPC project, shouting they know better and will do better, have a long way to go before something actually happens. It's been YEARS for them without any sign of improvement, and how long has the OLPC project existed so far? their first prototypes are already on the table. TODAY.
  • "The above costs include installation by Computer Aid technicians in London"

    Thirteen full time staff and a number of volunteers who get paid