Nicholas Negroponte’s accidental revolution

Digital pioneer Nicholas Negroponte, the man behind the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project to put cheap computers in the hands of children in poor countries, has inadvertently kickstarted a huge new market — one for cheap, ultraportable laptops.

Negroponte wanted to transform education in the developing world, uplifting the poorest of the world’s poor by bringing them into the information age. He believed that giving computers to the world’s poorest children would help lift them out of the cycle of poverty and give them a better education. Turns out that the project is inadvertently making a much bigger impact on the developed world.

OLPC, which is a nonprofit organisation, is premised on the idea of “constructionism” in education, which says that children learn through making things. The idea is that children can teach themselves, share knowledge and resources and learn by using computers to build things.

OLPC has created the XO-1, a laptop that costs a fraction of more powerful, commercial systems. Originally slated to cost US$100, the XO-1 costs $188. That may be nearly twice the price originally envisaged, but it’s still a third of the cost of traditional entry-level laptops. Negroponte, who is chairman emeritus of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says he still wants to drive the machine’s cost down — to as low as $75 by 2010, when the second-generation device, the XOXO, debuts.

But the project has run into controversy. The computers were meant to run off the free Linux operating system, but Negroponte came under pressure from Microsoft and its chairman, Bill Gates, to ship the machines with Windows. Negroponte relented, despite strenuous objections from members of the OLPC project team. Windows XP is now available on the XO-1 as an option, at $3/licence.

Several senior project managers, including Walter Bender, president of software and content, quit OLPC after disagreements with Negroponte, who also fell out with Intel. The giant chip maker left the project to build a rival computer, the ClassMate PC.

OLPC’s sales have fallen far short of expectations. Negroponte had wanted to sell between 50m and 150m XO-1 s in 2008, yet fewer than 1m have been ordered since the project’s inception.

But the OLPC project has inadvertently helped spawn a new market for ultralow-cost laptops. By saying he would develop a $100 laptop, Negroponte forced the computer industry, worried about the potential impact of a cheap laptop, to build cheaper devices that appeal to a much wider market. It has led to a new class of computer.

There is now a whole host of cheap laptops on the market, from companies such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Pioneer and Asus. The machine that has really grabbed people’s imaginations, more so than the XO-1, is Asus’s Eee PC. This tiny, lightweight, Linux-based machine has caused a sensation worldwide with its starting price of $299 for a model with a small but very usable seven-inch screen. The machine is not particularly powerful but it is ultraportable, making it ideal as a cheap companion for travel.

Toby Shapshak, editor of gadget magazine Stuff, says the Eee PC is perfect for the so-called Web 2.0 era, where Web-based e-mail and other online software services negate the need for powerful client computers. “It’s so light, compact and portable that at R3 000, it’s an impulse buy.”

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