Efforts to get cheap computers into the hands of children in the poor world suffered a set back over the new year with the withdrawal of Intel from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. Intel had a bust up with OLPC and MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, who inspired the project. The laptop (called the XO) is starting to ship and in Peru Intel is alleged to have tried to get the education ministry to adopt its Classmate PC instead (the XO runs on a chip from one of Intel’s competitors). Seems that the industry has now woken up to the size of this market and its profitability. There don’t seem to be any Intel press releases with their side of the story. OLPC news can be found here.
It looked like Intel’s withdrawal could seriously damage the project. In a WSJ report, an Intel spokesman said, rather cryptically, that they had reached a “philosophical impasse with OLPC’ (call out Alan Turing, anyone?). But OLPC now seems to have an unstoppable momentum, fortunately.
Encouraging the IT industry to produce these cheap appropriate technologies is akin to getting the big drugs companies to research the tropical diseases that kill poor people — but aren’t as profitable as the diseases of affluence. OLPC now seems to have encouraged a veritable rush from commercial producers.
BBC World has an interview with Mary Lou Jepsen who initiated the project with Negroponte. Describing herself as a ‘hardware chick’, she’s the inventor of the OLPC’s LCD screen — a key breakthrough in reducing its cost (the screen is viewable in strong sunlight and is very power efficient). She talks about the battle to persuade manufacturers to build the screens, after much early doubt. But these technologies are now likely to enter the commercial market as well. Indeed, the FT technology blog reports that her new company is working on $50-$75 laptop. This will be lower than the cost of the OLPC XO, the target price of which is $100 (the WSJ reports that the current model actually sells for $188 — still cheap).
In another interview on Groklaw Jepsen says that 260,000 are going to children in one-room classrooms in rural Peru. This is an amazing number. What will be the social and economic effects? Negroponte always described this as more of an education than a computer project. He’s right: out go those old textbooks — the kids can hook immediately to the latest reading material (and maybe get learning help on line from volunteer teachers? And read this blog?).
My posts are generated from my wonderful MacBook. But it cost us at least 1200 bucks. Can’t wait to start blogging from a $50 machine — shows that technologies developed for poor people can benefit us all.
(ps. the SciDev Net site keeps everyone in touch with the latest science and development news)