A laptop for every poor child

Confidence molded from privileged beginnings helps Nicholas Negroponte sustain One Laptop per Child initiative and transform to date, learning for 900,000 children.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

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.

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