Is US$100 laptop project flawed?

Computer Aid director says One Laptop Per Child project is based on a "misunderstanding of the history of tech."
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

The head of one of the largest charitable suppliers of refurbished PCs claims that there are some basic problems with creating a custom-made laptop for the developing world.

The One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, plan is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the IT industry, according to Tony Roberts, chief executive and founder of U.K. charity Computer Aid International.

Speaking to ZDNet UK last week, Roberts said that although he would be delighted if the OLPC project 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 nonstandard, 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 nonstandard technology."

The project aims to develop a portable PC for use by children in the developing world for about US$100. The price has risen since the plan was first announced to about US$135 to US$140.

Speaking at the Red Hat Summit earlier this month, the head of the OLPC project, Nicholas Negroponte, said past attempts to give children in developing countries access to computers 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 100,000 PCs to schools, and they are still sitting in their boxes.'" Negroponte said. "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."

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 the OLPC project is also distracting 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," Roberts said.

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

The organization is looking to expand 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 a 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 U.K. Met Office to create the infrastructure to allow weather information to be collected and analyzed locally in the developing world. At the moment, information collected from local weather stations is sent to a central office to be analyzed, and the information is then fed back.

But according to Roberts, the centralized system takes too long, so Computer Aid is helping 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 organization's work in that country.

If you would like to donate your business PCs, you can find more information through the Bridge the Digital Divide project run by Computer Aid and CNET Networks, publisher of News.com and ZDNet UK.

Editorial standards