Will Low-Cost Laptops Help Kids in Developing Countries?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child is working to develop computers that could be built for just $100 each and distributed to children in developing countries.

So far the organization has won the backing of some major technology companies as well as the United Nations. Intel Corp., which initially had its own low-cost PC design, decided to join the effort1 in July. The OLPC expects to begin mass producing its laptops, which are designed to be used outdoors and can be powered with a pull cord, later this year.

Still, some of the program’s critics, which have included Dell Inc. Chief Executive Michael Dell, argue that the OLPC machine’s computing power is insufficient, and that the laptops won’t be very useful without necessary supporting infrastructure. (Read a Wall Street Journal story4 about one entrepreneur’s difficulty trying to wire Rwanda.)

The Wall Street Journal Online invited Walter Bender, president of the One Laptop effort and former director of MIT’s Media Lab, to discuss the program with eMachines co-founder Stephen Dukker, whose start-up company sells technology for low-cost computer labs. Below is their exchange, carried out over email.

(The chairman of the One Laptop effort is Nicholas Negroponte, who has also been named to a panel5 formed to protect the editorial integrity of Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones and Co. News Corp., which has agreed to buy Dow Jones, has contributed funding to OLPC.)
[Stephen Dukker]

Stephen Dukker begins: Helping the developing world cross the Digital Divide is a fundamental act of decency, generosity and even self-interest for the developed world.

Unfortunately, the OLPC’s approach will not succeed because it runs counter to a fundamental fact of life: Computers cannot exist independent of basic economic realities. Any delivery, service and support model that doesn’t create profit will be unsustainable.

The price of base-level PCs has been stuck at about $400 for years. As a result, there are still one billion potential users who cannot afford them. The OLPC project is targeting a $100 computer, but has struggled to break $200. But given economic realities, even $200 computers cannot generate the profit essential to create a robust IT ecosystem, required for continuing operation.

A PC must communicate, which mandates connectivity. That in turn demands configuration, maintenance, professional services, technical support, and software and hardware upgrades. When was the last time a totally new laptop platform launched without a flood of patches, upgrades and repairs for the first few years of deployment? How will this be managed and deployed?

One also must ask whether OLPC’s low-cost laptops, with their PDA-sized seven-inch screens and low-performance processors, will actually meet the needs of users. For PCs to be productive, whether in the developing or the developed world, they require both a host of supporting services and reasonable features and capabilities.

Here in the developed world, the PC hardware industry has lived with nearly profitless computing for years… It’s asking too much to believe an industry with no profits could be sustained in the developing world. We need something completely different, something that can change the basic economics of PC computing. I believe the answer to this problem will be technological, not charitable.
[Walter Bender]

Walter Bender responds: I am pleased to hear that you resonate with the OLPC mission to help children in the developing world. However, to characterize our effort as an attempt to bridge the Digital Divide is somewhat off target. Our premise is that most children in the developing world lack the opportunity for a decent education. Our mission is to provide them with that opportunity because we think that learning is a critical factor is addressing many — if not all — of the problems that they face. We happen to think that the most efficient way to reach children and give them opportunity is to provide them with connected laptop computers.

I am somewhat confused when you refer to the OLPC approach as running counter to basic economic realities. While OLPC itself is a nonprofit, none of our suppliers, distributors, etc. are nonprofit. We are not asking anyone — except for governments — to provide laptops or services for free…

What is the basis of your assertion that OLPC is struggling to break $200? Further, what is the basis of your assertion that a $200 computer cannot generate the profit essential to create a robust IT ecosystem?

I agree with you that “a PC must communicate, which mandates connectivity.” Our mesh network provides zero-configuration, free, high-bandwidth communication within the local community without the need for any additional infrastructure. Further, it allows for laptops to share any existing back-haul bandwidth; thus we gain an efficiency of scale?

In regard to hardware support, we have taken extraordinary measures to build a robust laptop — much more robust that than the typical $1,000 machine: It has no hard disk to break; no internal moving parts; no fan; it is water and dust resistant; tolerates operation at 50C+ in high humidity; it survives a drop test at roughly three times the industry standard; etc. Further, it is designed to be field serviceable: A nine-year old can replace the motherboard with just a screwdriver.

In regard to software support, of course we will be issuing upgrades and patches, as is typical throughout the industry?

I agree with you that the way to achieve our goals is through technological advances. There are two ways to build an inexpensive laptop: One is to use cheap parts and cut corners; the other is to rethink the design from the ground up and use the highest technology. We have taken the latter approach and have build a first-class machine.

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Source: Wall Street Journal (link opens in a new window)