Battle for the cheap education computer hots up

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The holy grail of cheap computers for emerging markets is producing a sub-$100 laptop for education purposes. One Lap Top Per Child, the initiative launched by MIT’s tech showman Nicholas Negroponte took a step nearer last week with its first test production run. But it has a competitor in the shape of a Canadian company producing a similar if more expensive laptop product called Ink. The road to the holy grail is already littered with the failure of the Brazilian Volks and the Indian Simputer. The Volks never made it into production and the Simputer is under-specified and over-priced. It has had low sales in India and its African distributor closed up shop some while ago. Russell Southwood looks to see whether the latest contenders will overcome the scale of challenges involved in succeeding with low-price computing.

According to the One Laptop Per Child initiative (OLPC), Quanta Computer has produced the first thousand units of its device. Quanta Computer is a Chinese company specialising in PC assembly that according to its web site has a “diverse client base which includes nearly all of the world's top global PC vendors”.

According to sources familiar with the project, OLPC has bet its final price on being able to use a new screen technology. This will allow it to bring the ultimate price of the laptop down to the pre-announced $100 mark. What is not clear is whether the final $100 machine will have a black and white or colour screen.

The screen is currently one of the most expensive parts of a laptop build. For instance, Intel’s cheap laptop for emerging markets is planned to go on sale for around US$400 but it will have a proper full-scale screen.

Nicholas Negroponte’s response to scepticism about the final price is to simply say OPLC will go into production but this may simply be putting off the day when the $100 question is finally answered. But for now “we have to test, test, test this machine under conditions of extreme cold, extreme heat, mud, dust, jungle and daily abuse by kids.” The OPLC web site says that the organisation has orders for millions of it laptop but these are almost certainly “soft orders” until a working production prototype has been seen by potential clients. The moment of truth will be when the first cheque has to be signed.

By contrast with all high-tilt hoopla of OPLC, Ink seems in profile terms to be very modest but it has chosen a strategy of doing things first and talking about them afterwards. Its founder Canadian Jerry Morgan produced software for schools and the inspiration for the project came from an 11-month stay with Schoolnet in India. During this trip he noticed how conventional PCs in the classroom suffered from overheating, hard disk failure and viruses. He came back determined to build a machine that would overcome these drawbacks.

So he set out to build the “Volkswagen of the computer world” that would function with a minimum of moving parts and without the need for cooling fans. The solution is a ROM-based PC that runs cut-down versions of Open office and a suite of other software including a Firefox web browser, an e-mail browser and a VoIP client. As Vice President – Education Strategy James Renaudon-Smith told us:”This is not meant to be a top-end computer but one that deals with 90% of the needs of the intended users.” It will also include wireless capability.

It has a 7.8 inch screen, making it about the same size as a Toshiba Libretto and can boot up in 15 seconds and like a Palm handheld, it can be switched on and off rapidly without affecting its contents. Memory is provided by plug-in USB memory sticks or if required, an external hard drive. It has a 5-8 hour battery life and its chip set is being produced by Freescale, a spin-off from Motorola. The machine weighs under 1 kg. Once the Ink laptop is in production, it wants to produce a small desktop version.

Ink will be going into production in February with the Chinese company Brio (which is closely associated with the Government) and it has a production capacity of 25,000 units a week. However, it wants in the medium-term to spread its assembly to other partner-countries.

The current price tag is US$250 but it believes that with volume runs this will come down nearer to $200. This is twice the price of the OPLC machine but it may well turn out to be the more accurately priced machine. At present, Renaudon-Smith says it has 5,000 “hard” orders and 4.5 million “soft” orders subject to seeing a workable prototype.

The company is looking for African dealers for the machine and assembly companies that would be interested in getting involved in production on the continent. If you are interested in pursuing either of these options, please send your name and details to info@balancingact-africa.com.

Producing a machine of a certain spec to a certain price is immensely difficult. And if we exude a certain scepticism it is only because the distance between noisy pre-announcement and delivered product is usually the significant distance that breaks the hopeful even before they reach the starting line.

But let’s imagine the hopeful get to the starting line in Africa. Then Governments will spend millions of dollars buying the machines. And what often happens with multi-million dollar Government contracts in say Nigeria or Kenya? OK, let’s imagine this doesn’t happen. How many schools have trained school teachers who will be able to instruct their pupils in how to use their new machines?

Both Ink and OPLC talking of creating education content. OPLC has involved veteran computer education guru Seymour Papert. But even with all of this effort, it is not immediately apparent that a laptop will be the transformative educational device unless a great deal more groundwork is carried out before it arrives.