A program to provide millions of low-cost laptops to students in poor countries is set to start production in September even as commercial competitors prepare to offer even cheaper models.
The idea from Nicholas Negroponte, a cofounder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory, who proposed the project at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, two years ago, has moved closer to fruition.
Negroponte sees the computers, to be sold in bulk to governments of certain countries, as a linchpin of education and development.
The non-profit organization he formed -- One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) -- attracted support of leading businesses and institutions and will start production later this year, said Michail Bletsas, chief connectivity officer at OLPC.
The laptop is being made by the Taiwanese firm Quanta Computer Inc (
"OLPC would like to manufacture at least 3 million units in the first round of production," Bletsas said.
But OLPC could not say which countries were planning to order the laptops, spokeswoman Jackie Lustig said. Volume shipments to developing nations were planned for later this year, she said.
"OLPC is in talks with Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Nigeria, Thailand, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda and many other countries -- but nothing definite just yet," she said.
The new computers will not carry the symbolic price tag of US$100, at least not right away. The first models will cost US$175 and OLPC hopes the price will come down to US$100 by 2009.
Negroponte wanted to have an innovative, specifically tailored laptop -- called the XO -- that would be very small, hardy, user-friendly and use the free Linux operating system, not Microsoft Corp's Windows, which dominates the world market.
Sponsors of the project include chip maker AMD Inc; RedHat Inc, which is supplying the operating system; Google Inc, eBay Inc and News Corp.
OLPC dropped plans for the laptop to have a manual charger to cope with any lack of electricity, but has built in several features such as a camera, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections, and a one gigabyte of memory.
The association just distributed several hundred of the laptops to students in Nigeria, Thailand and Uruguay with the hope of eventually shipping millions to the countries. However, no orders came.
The sharpest critic of the project is the world's leading chip maker Intel Corp, which has dismissed the XO as a "gadget" and launched a rival commercial product.
Intel's "Classmate," also manufactured in Taiwan, costs US$285 and the price will drop to US$200 at the end of the year, Intel spokeswoman Agnes Kwan said.
Several thousand units have been shipped to Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria, she said, and the target is 100,000 laptops by December. And Pakistan has ordered 700,000 for 2009, she said.
Aghast at this commercial rivalry, Negroponte said recently that "Intel should be ashamed of itself."
He accused the US microprocessor giant of selling the laptops below cost to destroy the XO, a charge Intel has denied.
Soon OLPC will have to contend with even more aggressive Indian competitors.
The group Novatium just brought out a basic "NetPC" for US$80.
The market for the poor has become so enticing that Microsoft is preparing to launch a scaled-down software bundle of Windows and Office for US$3 for qualifying governments.
UNICEF, the UN children's fund, is a bright spot for OLPC which is putting its education content on all the laptops shipped.
On a sunny spring day in New York last week, two UNICEF officials were outdoors testing several of the small green-and-white laptops.
"If millions of these are in kids' hands, it will be a very good way to develop our info for them and to hear back from kids in the developing world to know what their needs are," said Erica Kochi, a spokeswoman.
UNICEF is sending 94 teens from several countries to Heiligendamm, Germany, on Friday to use the XOs to prepare proposals to present to the leaders of the G8 leading nations meeting there, she said.
"We are using the XO during the summit because these machines connect between them even if there is no Internet," Kochi explained.
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