John Paul

Reality check for the $100 laptop

Among the never-ending stream of news stories hyping the One Laptop Per Child project, there finally seems to be a few that strike a healthy note of caution. Both Slate and CNN ran articles this week that ask some very legitimate questions:

– “If you’re willing to assume that MIT can somehow keep the cost at or near the century mark, there’s still the question of who will support the computers (and who will pay for that support).”

– “The fact that each laptop comes with a built-in WiFi card won’t be of much use if there isn’t a WiFi access point nearby.”

– “Do they think these machines will last forever. What will happen when they break down?”

In his blog, Lee Felsenstein of the Fonly Institute has questioned the underlying theory of that project – that equipping schoolchildren throughout the developing world with powerful tools for learning and exploration will automatically result in such learning taking place:

– ?So far as can be seen, no studies are being done among the target user populations to verify the concepts of the hardware, software and cultural constructs. Despite the fact that neither the children, their schools nor their parents will have anything to say in the creation of the design, large orders of multi-million units are planned.?

– ?In developing societies children are perceived to have a place in helping the family advance, not in racing ahead and leaving the family behind. Unless it is evident that the laptop will improve the prospects of the family then support within the family may not be forthcoming, and the laptop will more likely be converted to cash.–

The last point is of real concern. The only barrier preventing a thriving black market among small businesses who require computers but still can?t afford a mainstream one is the stigma attached with using a bright neon-green computer meant to be used by children.

Like other failed attempts to bring computers to the masses, including Wipro’s Janata PC, the Simputer, the iStation, and Brazil’s Popular PC, so far this initiative seems to be technology-led. Despite the promise and hype surrounding these past devices, none managed to reach commercial viability or the level of success that was initially hoped for.

That being said, I think the OLPC project has a shot of succeeding where past efforts have failed–if it acts early to address some of the questions now being raised. None of the issues mentioned above are adequately addressed, if they are addressed at all, in the project’s FAQ.

Spreading millions of these laptops around the world is like scattering seeds in a field. Several will grow and bear fruit, many will not. Creating and promoting an enabling ecosystem now–one that addresses distribution, connectivity, training and maintenance – would go a long way to making sure those laptops land on fertile soil.