One Laptop Per Child and the Power of Visionary People

, by Francesco Ferrero

One Laptop Per Child and the Power of Visionary People

The recent publication of a paper titled One Laptop Per Child Overview. The iconic status of OLPC and its XO-1 laptops in 2009 [1] edited by W. Vota, C. Derndorfer, B. Berry, editors of olpcnews.com, allows us to retrace the first steps of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, announced to the world in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, a forerunner of the Internet age, cofounder of Wired magazine and the MIT Media Lab.

The essence of the OLPC project is not essentially technological but rather educational. The mission of the OLPC Foundation, founded by Negroponte with partners like AMD, Brightstar Corporation, eBay, Google, Marvell, News Corporation, SES, Nortel Networks, and Red Hat, is indeed, as the name suggests, to donate a laptop to each (poor) child in the world, but with a purpose: to experience on a global scale Samuel Papert’s theory, known as Constructionism, according to which learning occurs most efficiently when it’s active, social and explanatory, with a constant feedback between instructors and learners and between learners themselves.

In 1982, in a pilot project sponsored by the French government, Papert and Negroponte tried to distribute Apple II microcomputers to pupils of a primary school in Dakar, Senegal, and concluded that, as predicted by Papert, children from disadvantaged regions learn the use of computers as easily as any other child in the world. This conclusion was confirmed by subsequent experiments in Pakistan, Thailand and Colombia.

During these experiences, Negroponte developed also another belief: modern PC’s, designed for countries where the availability of electricity, broadband connectivity, and technical support is nearly universal, are not suitable for operating in developing countries, where they need to work in adverse environmental conditions and the almost total absence of infrastructure.

The OLPC project therefore aimed at building a $100 laptop, able to operate for at least five years in a developing country. To achieve this, the team of designers assembled by Negroponte was able to embed in the XO-1, a light and compact object weighing just 1.5 kg, a concentration of innovative technological solutions, absent even in high-end laptops, including:

  • An open source operating system called Sugar, derived from Linux, specifically designed to stimulate learning in a collaborative environment, promoting co-production and sharing of multimedia content.
  • A wireless connection system, known as mesh networking [2], which allows the XO-1 laptop to automatically connect with other geographically-close laptops, without any user interaction. To remedy the lack of internet connections, the connection of a single laptop can be automatically shared by all those involved in the mesh network, even miles away. The peculiar antennas located on the lid of XO-1, which remind the children of a rabbit’s ears, allow each laptop to communicate with others within a radius of 1 km.
  • The ability to transform the XO-1, with a simple twist of the screen, in an eBook reader. Each laptop can store hundreds of eBooks, and can share them with all other nodes in the network. What’s more, the screen is configured to switch from a high-resolution color mode, to a monochrome high-contrast mode, which allows one to read even when the screen is exposed to the sun and reduces battery consumption (in eBook mode the batteries can last up to 24 hours).
  • Unparalleled energy efficiency: with an absorption of between 3 and 6W, compared with more than 100W of a traditional laptop, the XO-1 is one of the most efficient computers, and can be recharged even where no electricity grid is available, using chargers that exploit the sun or other alternate energy sources.
  • The ability to operate in extreme conditions: the XO-1 has no moving parts (HD, fan, CD-DVD) or holes which could allow the infiltration of sand or dust, and can withstand a storm. The mechanical parts are designed so that the repair is very simple and can be performed directly by the little users, thus becoming itself a moment of collaborative learning.

The cost of this masterpiece of innovation is currently about $200: the number of orders, the devaluation of the dollar and the rising in raw material costs prevented its creators, for the moment, to lower the price below the psychological threshold of $100.

In light of its extraordinary value for money you would think that the project has been crowned with great success, but unfortunately this is not the case. Negroponte’s original plan was to quickly convince the political leaders of many developing countries to purchase one million pieces each, and distribute the XO-1 in schools, instead of textbooks. The millions of devices ordered would have allowed to reduce production costs and hit the target price of $100. History tells us, unfortunately, that this plan has essentially failed.

Shortly after announcing, with great fanfare, agreements with the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria and Thailand for one million orders each, the foundation had those orders cancelled, one after another. To remedy this, the innovative G1G1 (Get One Give One) program was launched on Christmas 2007. It proposed to U.S. consumers to buy two laptops at a price of $400. One would have been delivered to the buyer, and another given to a child in a developing country. The success was high: in just 6 weeks 160,000 computers were purchased. Unfortunately, the operation turned quickly into a boomerang: the foundation, which expected to deal with the purchase of blocks of one million units each, was not prepared to distribute 80,000 computers to users scattered across the U.S. territory, and did not have the necessary supplies. The forums were flooded with messages of protest from users, who had to wait months to get their laptops delivered. What’s more, the XO-1, specifically designed for children in developing countries, and thus equipped with an extremely simplified GUI, a keyboard too small for the fingers of an adult, just 256 MB of RAM and 4 GB of storage, and slower than a mass-market laptop, did not meet the expectations of American consumers, accustomed to every sort of electronic gadget. The project’s image was seriously damaged.

Soon, the foundation had to confront another problem: Intel, irritated because the designers of the XO-1 had opted for AMD’s microprocessor, after publicly criticizing the project, placed on the market a competing product, the Intel Classmate, with technical features closer to those of a high-end PC and a cost between 300 and 400 dollars. Thanks to their political relations, and to a distribution network not even remotely comparable to OLPC’s, Intel obtained much higher sales. Commenting on the affair, Negroponte said: “It’s a bit like McDonald’s competing with the World Food Program”.

To rebound, the foundation put a lot of expectations in G1G1 2008, to the extent that it set up a partnership with Amazon to distribute the laptops across the American territory. Unfortunately, the economic crisis took away, along with the wealth of American citizens, also their generosity. The laptops sold in the 2008 edition of G1G1 amounted to just 12.500, with a fall in sales of 93% compared to 2007.

According to Vota et al., the primary cause of the failure of the initial ambitions of the OLPC project should be sought in a fundamental mistake in strategy. To reach very quickly the necessary orders to cut production costs, Negroponte had decided to skip the phase of pilots, essentially asking the governments of many developing countries to invest 200 million dollars in the dark, in a project based on an educational model never experienced on a large scale, and completely devoid of documented success stories.

Given the failure of this strategy, in early 2009 the Foundation announced a restructuring of its operations, based on four pillars:

  • Development of Sugar will be transferred to a separate organization.
  • The foundation struck a deal with Microsoft, which will provide for $3 the Windows XP license to purchases by certain governments.
  • Operations in Central and South America and Africa were delegated to third parties. OLPC will concentrate its efforts on the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • OLPC announced the development of a new model, the XO-2, which will include significant advancements in technology, above all a dual-screen design, in which a touch screen will replace the keyboard.

Can we therefore say that the OLPC project was a failure? It is certain that the foundation is still very far from the original objectives of selling 5-10 million units in 2008. To date, significant customers (more than 10,000 pieces each) are:

  • Uruguay: 300,000 for every child in the school system
  • Peru: 260,000 for every child in rural schools
  • Rwanda: 110,000 for primary schools
  • United States & Canada: 67.000 through Give One Get One
  • Mexico: 50,000 for libraries in rural areas
  • Mongolia: 20,000 for select schools
  • United States: 15,000 for the Birmingham, AL, school district.

That said, the foundation reduced the minimum order to 1,000 pieces and is now embracing the perspective of a slower market penetration. Moreover, last April came the news that the Indian government has signed an agreement with OLPC for the “initial” purchase of 250,000 laptops. The same government had announced earlier the mass distribution of a $10 PC, later proved to be a hoax. Considering the size of the population of school age in India, and the fact that the country has staked much of their chances on technology training for young people, the potential of this agreement is huge.

But there’s more. With his visionary idea of a $100 laptop, Negroponte has literally revolutionized the world market for personal computers. Before OLPC, laptops would cost on average $1,000, were becoming increasingly heavy, powerful and energy hungry. The success of the first G1G1 program in the U.S., quite unexpectedly, showed the global hardware and software giants that also in the market of developed countries a huge potential existed for an ultralight laptop with low power and cost, which easily connects to the internet. We are all witnesses of how this kind of product, quickly rebranded netbook, invaded our markets. Vota et al. recall that netbooks are "the fastest-growing sales category in personal computing, with 14.6 million netbooks sold in 2008, 11% of all laptop sales.

When Negroponte announced a $100 laptop, the industry responded by mocking him: the facts proved that he was right. Certainly the OLPC goal was and remains far, but the impact of ideas is often very different from their original intent.

The criticism most often addressed to OLPC is this: why a country with scarce food and drinking water should invest $200 million in laptops? Well, we think that it makes sense. At a time when economic development is based largely on technology and knowledge, the opportunity to participate in an experience of collaborative learning and to get comfortable with the technology since one’s childhood can be an extraordinary opportunity for emancipation. The experience of India, where the ICT industry is enjoying a huge success thanks to the vision of Nehru, who decided to invest substantial resources in the education of young people, demonstrates the potential of this strategy. We believe that Confucius’ saying applies perfectly to this case: “If you see a hungry man, don’t give him rice; teach him how to grow his own rice”.

The thing that strikes the most thinking about OLPC, is that such a project has been promoted by a handful of visionaries, and pursued by a private non-profit foundation, without a substantial support of institutions and challenging the formidable opposition of the computer industry. However, the OLPC operation is not the only one with these characteristics: Page and Brin, Google’s founders, started off with the objective to organize all the information of the web, to make it available to humanity; Israeli start-up Better World, which invests in the electric car, with an original business model based on hiring the batteries, expressly declares that its mission is to free the world from dependence on oil. The scientific and technological revolution changed in depth the structure of our society, allowing individuals with vision and the ability to interpret the deepest needs of humanity, to achieve power levels higher than those of most governments.

The present financial crisis is mainly due to the fact that greed took over on solidarity. The savings generated worldwide were used to finance the richest part of humanity, who borrowed without limit to satisfy all sort of artificial needs induced by an incessant bombardment of advertising. Now that this model of development proved untenable, it is necessary to imagine another, opposite one, where the savings will be used to satisfy the needs, not at all artificial, of the most disfavored part of mankind. Beyond the problems that have characterized the early stages, the OLPC project goes exactly in this direction, and should therefore deserve a strong support, in the first place by supranational institutions.

Image: Children with their new laptops, source: google images

This article was first published at ’The Federalist Debate’, 3, 2009 (www.federalist-debate.org)

Footnotes

[1W. Vota, C. Derndorfer, B. Berry, One Laptop Per Child Overview. The iconic status of OLPC and its XO-1 laptops in 2009, http://www.olpcnews.com/files/One_Laptop_Per_Child_Overview_2009.pdf

[2The wireless protocol used is the IEEE 802.11s

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