In January 2005, MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte announced the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program, a utopian attempt to improve education in poor communities through the design and global distribution of cheap, low-power laptops. Eventually, Negroponte said, the laptop would sell for a hundred dollars. The program was conceived on a grand scale: Negroponte initially claimed that the laptop would not go into production until governments worldwide had placed a total of five million orders.
But the million-unit orders never materialized. To date, Peru is the program’s largest customer by a large margin, having ordered about 270,000 laptops. So in November 2007, the laptop, dubbed the XO, went into production anyway, at a cost of roughly $188 a unit. At about the same time, OLPC began its holiday-season Give 1 Get 1 drive: any donor who contributed $399 to the project would receive a complimentary XO, and a second XO would be sent to a poor community.
Some observers considered the drive a desperate attempt to inject cash into a floundering endeavor. Then, last week, Intel walked away from a tempestuous six-month partnership with OLPC, scotching the planned unveiling of an Intel version of the XO at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The main point of contention appears to have been Intel’s attempts to sell its own cheap laptop, the Classmate PC, to governments that had already made provisional commitments to OLPC. OLPC claims that Intel violated a nondisparagement clause in its contract; Intel claims that the clause bound only the company’s officers, not its sales force. The New York Times greeted the news with a headline announcing “The Demise of One Laptop per Child.”
Earlier this week, Technology Review senior editor Larry Hardesty sat down with Walter Bender, OLPC’s president for software and content, to discuss both Intel’s withdrawal and the overall health of the initiative.
Technology Review: What effect does Intel’s departure have on the program?
Walter Bender: Zero. Intel had contributed nothing. They contributed nothing to our current product, the XO. They contributed nothing to our learning models. They contributed nothing to the software. So their going away, so far, is a wash for us.
TR: Isn’t this just the latest blow to the program?
WB: After what?
TR: After large contracts not materializing. Originally, wasn’t there a minimum requirement for a government order?
WB: Originally, there was. We certainly made some mistakes along the way. And one mistake was to be a little bit too rigid in our model. Part of it was just based on some false assumptions on our part in terms of what kind of volume we needed to get things launched. And we thought that going to a few large orders was the best way to jump-start things, to prime the pump.
Some of us, our instinct was quite different. And that was to try to get a broad base and try to make this a grassroots, bottom-up launch instead of a top-down launch. Now, it turns out that we have both. And really, what we’re after is any good idea. So on the one hand, we actually do have some large orders. Maybe not as large as we had originally hoped for, but we’re going to do a quarter of a million laptops just in Peru. And we’re doing something on a similar scale in Uruguay.
Those are examples of top-down. But then there’s a lot of bottom-up. We just did about 100,000 bottom-up machines that we’re going to be distributing through the “give” part of the Give 1 Get 1 program.