Labor should promise the kids XO, not XP

Should Labor get into power at the federal election next month, its promised "education revolution" rebate would be better spent on the world's largest single order for Negroponte's XO laptop instead of being a boon for traditional PC retailers and a certain software vendor from Redmond.

commentary Should Labor get into power at the federal election next month, its promised "education revolution" rebate should result in the world's largest single order for Nicholas Negroponte's XO laptop instead of being a boon for traditional PC retailers and a certain software vendor from Redmond.

Liam Tung, ZDNet Australia

Under the Labor proposal announced earlier this week, families with one child in primary and another in secondary education could receive up to AU$1,125 through rebates claimed against laptop, PC, Internet access and software purchases.

Labor's plans, quite rightly, have been questioned by analysts because the rebate's unintended beneficiaries would be cashed-up PC retailers like Harvey Norman and Dick Smith, not to mention hardware and software vendors.

Likewise, the rebate could be exploited, according to the managing director of S2 Intelligence, Dr Bruce McCabe. Earlier this week, he told ZDNet Australia: "There will be no such thing as a PC that's not for educational purposes. Anyone with children of any age will be claiming the rebate."

But if the goal is to have a more computerised society, does this really matter?

Then there are more cynical critics. One comment that came through to ZDNet Australia's talkback predicted a flood of sales to Cash Converters as a result of the rebate.

It was this remark that made me think; what happens if everyone had the same basic PC or laptop, say like Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child XO Laptop or Intel's stripped down Classmate laptop? Would there be much point in selling a second-hand laptop in a market flooded with them?

Last month, Negroponte announced to the world that the XO laptop would be available in the US and Canada for US$399. Meanwhile, Intel, much to the chagrin of Negroponte, announced Classmate would cost US$200.

According to some reports, 2.3 million Australian students will be eligible for the revolution rebate, which of course, doesn't mean that all will want the XO Laptop or Classmate -- neither laptop is considered powerful enough for high school students.

But therein lies the opportunity. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated in 2005 that 57 percent of Australia's 3.3 million non-tertiary students are in primary school -- the perfect market for a cheap, low power PC -- which means there is a potential buying group of roughly 1.3 million Australian children, ripe for the product.

At the same time, many of Australia's 200,000 indigenous children face financial circumstances similar to, if not worse than, the XO Laptop's intended beneficiaries in developing countries.

Of the 1.3 million children eligible for the primary school student rebate of AU$375, which is around AU$50 short of the US$399 being asked for the bundle of two XO Laptops (one for the buyer, one for charity), even if only 30 percent bought one, there would be enough to give every single indigenous child in Australia one and spare a hundred thousand for children in developing countries.

S2 Intelligence's Dr McCabe is at least one person who has thought about opportunities for indigenous communities in Australia. He has contacted Negroponte about opportunities for Australia's indigenous children using the XO Laptop but unfortunately the OLPC group has not responded.

"There are pretty good opportunities in indigenous communities to bridge that divide," McCabe said. "It's not on the policy radar but it would be a natural extension and a more interesting one compared to what Rudd has said so far."

But back to the school kids who would gain access to the rebate. With stripped-down open source software that is capable of providing basic compatibility with PDF, Word, e-mail, chat and VoIP, it seems an excellent training ground for students.

Can you imagine what would happen if an entire generation of school kids were given access to this rugged little PC?

Finally, since both major political parties support the AU$1 billion military intervention into the indigenous communities, it could also present an opportunity to broaden the intervention's goals and hopefully achieve something worthwhile.

Along with guns and notepads to document abuse, army personnel could also bear gifts in the form of laptops -- a genuine educational initiative, that may even see some genuine humanitarian benefit.

In the end, a free PC won't solve all of Australia's problems, but if we're going to attempt to bridge the digital divide, then let's include everyone.