Home' Technology Review : March April 2008 Contents Q&A
In January 2005, MIT Media Lab
cofounder Nicholas Negroponte
announced the One Laptop per Child
program (OLPC), which was intended
to improve education in poor countries
by putting $100 laptops in the hands of
schoolchildren (see "Philanthropy's New
Prototype," November/December 2006).
The laptop would not go into production,
Negroponte declared, until OLPC had
received five million orders from govern-
ments around the world.
Almost three years later, however, the
program's two largest customers were
Peru and Uruguay, which together had
ordered slightly fewer than 400,000
units. So in November 2007, OLPC
began manufacturing laptops any-
way, at a cost of roughly $188 apiece. At
about the same time, OLPC began its
holiday-season Give One Get One drive:
any donor who contributed $399 to the
project would receive a complimentary
computer, and a second would be sent
to a poor community. The drive raised
$35 million to "bootstrap" laptop pro-
grams in countries including Mongolia,
Haiti, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and
Afghanistan, each of which will initially
receive around 10,000 laptops.
In January, TR senior editor Larry
Hardesty spoke with OLPC's president
for software and content, Walter Bender.
TR: Initially, you thought you d need millions
of advance orders to get the cost of the lap-
top down. Why wasn t that the case?
Bender: The correlation between vol-
ume and price wasn't as extreme as we
thought. Well, in the long run, it is. In the
long run, you're not going to do a large-
scale integration without having su -
cient volume to cover the nonrecurring
costs. But because we raised money to
cover all the nonrecurring costs for the
[current] machine, we didn't have to amor-
tize any costs in the cost of the laptop.
In the absence of large-volume orders,
though, couldn t you just run out of money
before you reach critical mass?
We don't need a lot of money to keep
One Laptop per Child going. It's really
more a matter of just keeping the factory
running. And basically, we scale the fac-
tory based on the volume.
But the Give One Get One program built
volume by manufacturing demand.
We actually manufactured more vol-
ume than the factory can manage right
now. Which is why people are saying,
"Where's my laptop?" Because we don't
have the manufacturing capacity to
deliver everybody their laptops yet. So
in fact, we've got more volume in orders
than we can fulfill right now.
You ve said that the point of the program
is to get laptops into kids hands, and you
don t really care who ends up manufactur-
ing them. But was that part of OLPC s mis-
sion from the outset?
Absolutely. One could argue that the
need is one to two billion children. And
as arrogant as a bunch of former MIT
people can be, we're not so arrogant as
to suggest that we can service that need
ourselves. We've built what I think is an
amazing machine, but it's inevitable that
there will be other amazing machines
that will emerge. And since our mission
is one laptop per child---it's not one green-
and-white laptop per child---that's great.
So how does your laptop stack up against
the others that are beginning to compete
with it? Intel s Classmate or the Asus Eee ...
I don't think much of the Classmate as
a machine. I think it consumes too much
power; I think it's got a crappy display
that's not suitable for reading. A lot of the
kids, this is their only book. And to read
on a display that's designed for a portable
DVD player is not exactly useful.
This will be kids only book?
You go to even a relatively wealthy
country like Nigeria. You go to one of
the major cities there, Abuja, which is
the capital city, their model city. And
you go to a school in Abuja, and they've
got 80 kids in a classroom and two or
three books for those 80 kids. And if you
go outside of Abuja to the countryside,
they're lucky if they have that.
How about the other competitors?
One thing to consider is, what's the
cost of ownership over a five-year life-
time? There are several issues: How do
you provide power to the laptop? How
much power does the laptop require?
What's the lifetime of the battery system?
We designed our battery system to have a
2,000-cycle lifetime, which means that if
you cycle through [drain and recharge the
battery] once a day, that's going to last five
years. Whereas the typical laptop battery
lasts 500 cycle times, so that's less than a
year and a half. And the replacement cost
of the battery is, in our case, less than 10
dollars. I don't know in these other sys-
tems, but I would guess that it would be
three or four or five or so times that.
But then there's the other question: So
I charge my machine at school, and I take
it home. So first of all, how long is the
machine going to run on battery charge?
How long can I read my book for? Am
I a slow reader? So we've designed the
e-book to run for---actually, we have a
target of close to 24 hours, but we can
achieve probably half of that using our
current power management scheme.
OLPC s former chief technology officer,
Mary Lou Jepsen, recently started her own
company and immediately announced
plans to build a $75 laptop. If she suc-
ceeds, what will your reaction be?
One Laptop per Child, now
Photograph by CHRISTOPHER CHURCHILL
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