A laptop for every poor child

A laptop for every poor child

Summary: Confidence molded from privileged beginnings helps Nicholas Negroponte sustain One Laptop per Child initiative and transform to date, learning for 900,000 children.

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Top technology executives brushed him aside when he first raised his vision, but today Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop per Child (OLPC) device has reached 900,000 children and inspired a whole new--and growing--market segment known as netbooks.

Sugar as OS was 'mistake'

SINGAPORE--Putting a crank-shaft on the XO laptop was a mistake, but the biggest mistake was not having Sugar run as an application "on a vanilla Linux laptop", said OLPC founder and chairman Nicholas Negroponte.
"Sugar should have been an application [residing] on a normal operating system," he told ZDNet Asia in an interview. "But what we did…was we had Sugar do the power management, we had Sugar do the wireless management--it became sort of an omelet. The Bios talked directly with Sugar, so Sugar became a bit of a mess."
Negroponte added: "It should have been much cleaner, like the way they offer [it] on a stick now."
The availability of the Sugar interface via a USB could possibly herald a "naked" XO laptop in future, said Negroponte, currently on leave from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The founder and chairman of an organization with an ambitious goal to eliminate poverty in the world, ironically, never quite experienced what it felt like to be poor. Self-professed to have come from a privileged background, Negroponte had a childhood that included "a lot of traveling".

Confidence and outspokenness were trademarks of a young Negroponte, he told ZDNet Asia in an interview. "When…I was six years old, I went to see the headmaster explaining that my first-grade teacher should be fired--[she] wasn't good enough.

"When I was in high school, I got [the school] to substitute art for sports--I didn't have to do any sports, I could just do art," he shared.

Resistance from industry
The same streak of confidence stood him in good stead three-and-a-half years ago, when Michael Dell, then the founder and chairman of Dell, looked him in the eye and said the US$100 laptop Negroponte envisioned was "impossible". That laptop was to be the tool--a connected device for learning and play--that would revolutionize education in the poorest parts of the world.

"[Then-Microsoft Chairman] Bill Gates said 'Geez get a real computer'," he recounted in a speech to a Singapore audience at the invitation of the Singapore Management University's (SMU) School of Information Studies. "[Then-Intel Chairman] Craig Barrett called [the XO laptop] a gadget."

But he went ahead to do it anyway. Soon after, many PC makers, including Asus with its Eee PC, followed his lead to create low-cost notebooks with built-in connectivity and limited features. Today, netbooks are one of the fastest-growing notebook segments and are beginning to penetrate the enterprise.

Bill Gates said 'Geez get a real computer.' Craig Barrett called it a gadget.

Negroponte, who confesses that the "unexpected resistance from industry" had for him been the most challenging aspect of OLPC, had harsh words for companies such as Intel. The chipmaker, which has its own Classmate PC for education purposes, had been involved in the OLPC effort but later split from the organization.

"It bothers me when people spoil the market," he says, alleging Intel once convinced Libyan authorities to provide for 15,000 children instead of 1.5 million. "It's like MacDonald's competing with the [United Nations] World Food Programme."

'Goose bumps' in learning
While the XO laptop was designed to appeal to young users who are using computers for the first time, it was certainly no toy, Negroponte insists. It's an electronic book and a games machine. It has to "do things that [typical] laptops cannot do"--work well under sunlight and, as he demonstrated by spontaneously flinging the device off-stage onto the floor, "bounce around". It does not always work of course, he concedes, as the laptop once broke into pieces as he performed the same "cheap trick".

In spite of the OLPC's best intentions to build a cheap laptop, the XO did in fact break the US$100 barrier--it currently costs US$175. But Negroponte insists the machine would be priced under US$100 if the currency value and price of raw materials such as zinc and plastic were that five years ago.

Yet, there's no denying the effect these companions have had on the young children, and even adults exposed to them. According to Negroponte, 50 percent of Peruvian children who have XO laptops teach their parents how to read and write. "If that doesn't give you goose bumps, I don't know what will."

The benefits do go beyond education. "When a child opened the laptop at home, it [could be] the brightest light source," he said.

China, India 'biggest disappointment'
To date, 900,000 laptops are in the hands of children from 31 nationalities, notes Negroponte. Another 230,000 are en route, while 600,000 have been ordered but not fulfilled. The XO laptop has been customized for a total of 19 languages.

It's like MacDonald's competing with the [United Nations] World Food Programme.
on for-profit businesses taking on the OLPC

But despite the OLPC vision originating out of the Asian country of Cambodia, Negroponte admits that the region has benefited "very little" from the project. Mongolia, with 13,000 to 14,000 laptops, has been the most active in the region. Cambodia has to-date received a couple of thousand XO laptops. Thailand was one of six countries the OLPC originally targeted, but the organization faced a "bumpy road" ever since Thaksin Shinawatra was disposed as the country's prime minister. To add to that, there are no "salespeople" that can work the ground in Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, China and India have been the "biggest disappointment" to Negroponte, given the potential impact. "They represent 40 percent of the [world's] children, and neither of them is currently active for different but similar reasons." Both, he laments, have big markets and their own beliefs that they "can do it on their own". In addition, there is the issue of political stability--the Indian central government, for instance, is "quite chaotic".

Other highlights about the OLPC project shared by Negroponte at the SMU talk:

•  The green and white colors chosen for the first-generation XO laptops were derived from the Nigerian flag, as the OLPC staff were inspired by the Nigerian president's praise for the device.
•  Around 3,000 people were involved in the OLPC project at the peak of its engineering.
•  Whenever possible, the laptops are each shipped with 100 e-books so that a village with just 100 machines will, as a result of the multiplication effect, have 10,000 "books".
•  At 2.2 million orders, Peru is the country with the largest commitment to OLPC. There are currently 350,000 XO laptops, mostly in very remote parts of the country.
•  Teachers in OLPC-participating countries have said they never loved teaching as much as now. In Uruguay, a teacher who had taught for 30 years contemplated early retirement when she heard about the XO laptops, changed her mind after just two days and instead asked for a late retirement.
By December 2008, the organization's "Give One, Get One" program had lost resonance with the public--it did 90 percent worse than in 2007--and 10 corporate sponsors took flight, eight of whom left the same month. The OLPC is now at a stage where it lives from hand to mouth, with new orders making up for the lost of sponsorship.

Topics: IT Employment, CXO, Government Asia, Hardware, Mobility, Software Development, Tablets

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22 comments
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  • A laptop for every poor child

    a fascinating side to this story is how OLPC gained - and then lost - the biggest number of volunteers ever come together for an international education project. Now a fringe of a few dozen, they numbered in the high tens of thousands in the days it seemed OLPC would welcome community collaboration, a Web 2.0 and an Open Source grassroots approach. But after taking their money (the 2007 Give1Get1), it seemed their presence was "not good enough", Dr. Negroponte betting on a top-down, one-way decision-making process. Interestingly, beyond the XO being an excellent work of design and technology, as hardware, the biggest challenges now to get it to actually be useful for education are related to scalability, and depend on how "not good enough" people relate and can actually work together for good.
    anonymous
  • A laptop for every poor child

    My favorite Bill Gates comment was back around '99 when he said, "the Internet is not a platform" so thanks for including yet another mind numbing remark from a guy who thought he could simply "donate" more worthless software as his contribution to poor children. It's always been embarrassing to read what the leading billionaires of the tech world think of the poor and underprivileged. Shame just doesn't seem to resonate with these greedy and ignorant types.
    anonymous
  • RE: A laptop for every poor child

    Yeah, Gates is so greedy he's given billions to improve healthcare for children in poor countries. You're the one who should be ashamed for your ignorant statements...
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: A laptop for every poor child

    Please ignore my husband, he's trolling again...
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: RE: A laptop for every poor child

    That's quality research Moira. Bill's wife is named MELINDA.
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: A laptop for every poor child

    yes, he's so greedy he ties stings to contracts for foundation money which ties the money to purchases of Microsoft products. And what's worst, he and most on the foundation are rewarded by these kinds of contracts because they still own Microsoft stock.

    the OP was talking about being embarrassed by how these wealthy view the poor so your comment was completely off base. I would love to see Mr Gates keep his foundation out of technology and stick to healthcare. But they don't and he pulls the same tricks of exclusion to benefit themselves.
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: A laptop for every poor child

    It's always enchanting to read a insulting comment from an anonymous joker. If you're so proud of him, and if you like insulting people, tell us your name? Coward! Otherwise, learn that his billions were given to get people to use his software. He's never made a deal in his life where he isn't getting something in return. Giving away billions in software is not the same as giving money.
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: A laptop for every poor child

    > Gates is so greedy he's given billions to improve healthcare for children

    Gates gives software which costs him pennies and tax-deducts it at full value. The gives pharmaceuticals for similar reasons. He, and his foundation, have lots of investments in big pharma (http://www.aegis.com/news/wsj/2002/WJ020509.html) and so his donations make it difficult for countries to produce generic patent free drugs.

    In other words; It's reasonable to say that Gates kills the "children in poor countries" rather than helping them
    anonymous
  • I agree with Negroponte. Sugar should have been an app, not an OS

    One aspect of Sugar being the OS vs. an app manifested itself in a way that negatively impacted the adoption of OLPC was that it prevented the implementation of internet / porn filters that parents could control. This issue was raised by several parents and for the most part was ignored by OLPC and the Sugar developers. The attitude behind responses on their support and wiki sites to this concern was purely academic: the XO device was supposed to drive a child's curiosity and that exploration was a natural state of mind.

    That attitude didn't bode well with many parents here in the US nor did it help OLPC as a number of children in third world countries used their XO devices to surf porn. There were a series of articles in the press about schools in some countries refusing to obtain more XO systems or even taking away the systems they had already deployed over this issue.

    Eventually there were complex instructions posted on the OLPC wiki on how to set up and configure your own firewall server on your home network, but that assumed that all of the parents who purchased this system for their kids were computer network technicians. It assumed that folks in these other countries were as well. Still they didn
    anonymous
  • RE: I agree with Negroponte. Sugar should have been an app, not an OS

    Hi Mark, why not teach your child how to trust you and you trust him? Or, why not just sit with him or her and teach him what is right or wrong? Maybe I'm just old fashioned, but it seems that is a much wiser lesson to teach both your child and yourself.
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: I agree with Negroponte. Sugar should have been an app, not an OS

    I don't see how wanting to install parental control software makes me a bad parent. Part of that teaching of trust is me also sharing that I'm doing this with my child and why I'm doing it as I sit with them. I also think it misses the point of my post to go down that rathole. The bottom line is with Sugar as an OS vs. an app the XO prevented people from installing software that would have increased its overall adoption rate. It hurt its adoption rate in the US as well as other countries and this is well documented. I actually support OLPC--I just think Negroponte is correct in his reassessment of having Sugar overstep its boundaries and pretending to be an OS. Blurring that line impacted the XO in many ways, this being simply one example.
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: RE: I agree with Negroponte. Sugar should have been an app, not an OS

    Just use OpenDNS to filter out sites. Its as effective as the parental control software you can add to Windows. Except it is free and requires that you change an entry in 1 file.

    If you'd checked in any OLPC user group you would have found this solution. For groups of OLPCs the "Dan's Guardian + Squid" solution is best and provides other benefits like web caching on a local shared server to speed internet access to all OLPCs connected via that server, but the OpenDNS offering works fine for single OLPCs
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: A laptop for every poor child

    Billy Gates is a greedy lil punk. Handing out large sums of money for him is nothing, it's more of a tax break than philanthropy. Instead of giving cheap, nearly worthless handouts, he needs to concentrate on educating the less fortunate. Give a man to fish, feed him for a day, teach him to fish, feed him for life. Billy is giving out too many fish for his own good.
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: A laptop for every poor child

    He can afford to and hopefully will fund more public works. He needs to repent/payback for locking the masses intol shyte software!
    anonymous
  • RE: RE: RE: RE: I agree with Negroponte. Sugar should have been an app, not an OS

    Just how difficult is "Dan's Guardian + Squid" to install? Is it easy or is it Linux easy? Big difference.
    anonymous
  • RE: I agree with Negroponte. Sugar should have been an app, not an OS

    I could see how you would prefer to have software do the parenting for you. After all, who wants to deal with the tedious and inconvenient task of raising a child? Just let the computer, video games, and television do it! I mean, as long as it has a porn filter, it's just as good as a parent, yeah?
    anonymous
  • A laptop for every poor child

    Imagine your the head of Microsoft and someone comes up with the idea of providing / supplying laptop computers to (anywhere up to) 200 million+ children in developing countries. Great!, said person thinks, lots more money to be made, now and in the future.

    Oh! wait, the computers won't be running windows and are not really suited to running windows.


    Imagine your the head of Intel and someone comes up with the idea of providing / supplying laptop computers to (anywhere up to) 200 million+ children in developing countries. Great!, said person thinks, lots more money to be made, now and in the future.

    Oh! wait, the computers won't be using intel processors.

    OLPC - http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Core_principles - Good for linux, good for opensource; not really good for the likes of Intel and Microsoft.

    The vision was a solid one, but with heavy pressure being applied to governements by the likes of Intel and Microsoft (and possibly other large multi nationals), the project was doomed to failure.

    Intel joins the OLPC foundation, can't get it's way, leaves in a huff.
    anonymous
  • Really two organisations

    I think the problem with OLPC is that it's really two organisations with conflicting goals.

    On the one hand you have a hardware manufacturer, albeit a not-for-profit one, that is trying to create technology suitable for a developing world market.

    On the other hand you have an organisation that advocates a particular educational theory, constructivism.

    Imagine for a minute that you are a hardware manufacturer, let's call the organisation OL (One Laptop). As a hardware manufacturer you would create your product for a percieved niche in the market but if other niches or markets also wanted your product you would happily support that. Also you would be happy to support your customers in whatever uses they found for your device. If the market wanted your device to support Ubuntu, or Windows or parental controls or anything else you would listen to it. If people outside of education wanted to buy your product you would let them. If people wanted to buy just one you would let them. If other manufacturers started to compete with you because you had demonstrated the existence of the market you wouldn't be surprised. To maintain your first mover advantage you would spend a lot of effort gaining a better understanding of the needs of your market to stay one step ahead of your competitors.

    Now imagine you are a foundation that believes in the benefits of constructivist teaching methods particularly for the developing world. Let's call this organisation the PC (Pro Constructivist) Foundation. What kind of things would you do? You might engage in primary research to investigate the effects of constructivist teaching methods. You might run courses and capacity building exercises in constructivism. You might give support to ministries of education and advocate constructivism. You might even engage directly in education technology projects - but if you did you would be completely objective and independent from any particular hardware manufacturer. You might use Acer Aspires, you might choose Intel Classmates, you might choose OL's XO laptop. Whatever suits that project best - and you wouldn't assume that every school and every education system around the world has the same needs.

    The problem is OLPC sees itself both as a charitable organisation trying to transform education in developing countries (by constructivism) AND a hardware manufacturer, in fact THE hardware manufacturer. As a hardware manufacturer their hands are tied becaues they pretty much refuse to sell their product to anyone other than ministries of education or for any purpose other than education. As a pro-education charity their message is compromised because they are obviously pushing a product.
    anonymous
  • A laptop for every poor child

    HOW DO I GETT 1
    anonymous
  • A laptop for every poor child

    How about child in Batam Indonesia there are so many poor child here, i need your attention for them..thanks
    anonymous