'One Laptop Per Child' Program Faces Challenges In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte outlined a plan to build laptops for no more than $100 and distribute them to the world's poorest children. Since then, the One Laptop per Child initiative has hit a few snags — the laptops cost about $180 and Microsoft and Intel have emerged as competitors.
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'One Laptop Per Child' Program Faces Challenges

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Right now, in 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, who founded the MIT Media Lab, outlined an ambitious vision to design and build a laptop for no more than $100. His nonprofit One Laptop per Child would distribute the computer to 150 million of the world's poorest children.

Since he introduced the idea, the so-called $100 laptop has had a few snags. Negroponte and his colleagues never got the price as low they wanted and they faced unexpected competition from for-profit tech companies, including Intel and Microsoft.

Reporter Steve Stecklow wrote about the problems facing the One Laptop per Child program for the Wall Street Journal. He joins us now from the studios of WBUR in Boston.

Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. STEVE STECKLOW (Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): Great to be with you.

NEARY: Now, why couldn't they make a $100 laptop?

Mr. STECKLOW: Well, I think under their plan, they would have to sell millions of them in order to be able to drive the prices down from their suppliers for the machine. And the original plan that Professor Negroponte proposed was to sell a million to six different countries, a minimum order of one million. And then if he got these six million by now, he'd be able to bring the price down. Of course, technology prices come down generally anyway, so that was his target. But, unfortunately, he hasn't been able to sell anywhere near six million. Right now, the current orders just for this year are 300,000, so I think that's hurt in terms of bringing the price down to its target.

NEARY: So what does it cost now, this laptop?

Mr. STECKLOW: Right now, it costs about $188. And the problem is that that's not that far away from what more traditional laptops that, say, run Windows cost now. They are approaching $200.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. STECKLOW: And they're made by big companies that can offer some things that Mr. Negroponte's nonprofit I don't think really can match in terms of things like after-sales support and things like that. Now, I think he deserves great credit for putting pressure on big companies to, you know, reconsider the developing world and to look at it and consider selling laptops there at a price people can afford.

So when he first proposed this in January '05 - I mean, laptops costs $600 and up. Now, we see laptops, you know, $230 et cetera. Problem is it's competing with the machine that he created from scratch, which by almost to all accounts is a really unique, innovative machine. But, you know, they are facing tremendous competition now, I think, from companies like Intel, which don't even normally sell computers.

NEARY: Right. You wrote in your article: Mr. Negroponte's ambitious plan has been derailed, in part, by the power of his idea.

What do you mean by that exactly?

Mr. STECKLOW: Well, I think you can ask him, but, you know, I don't think he saw - I mean, there seem to be an assumption that this was a great noble idea, which I think it actually is and very, very philanthropic. But to think that giant companies like Microsoft - whose operating system, Windows, is an honest machine - would sit back and just watch a machine potentially become a standard in countries throughout the world with potentially a billion new customers and they'd sit back and watch and do nothing. I think maybe a little naive, same with Intel.

The chips in the Mr. Negroponte's laptop are made by AMD, which is their chief competitor. They clearly saw this as a threat. And, you know, again, they don't normally even sell machines, but last year, they introduced a machine called The Classmate, which is currently selling for as low as $230. They're marketing it very aggressively in many of the same countries that Mr. Negroponte had targeted such as Libya and Nigeria, for example. And they're doing extremely well. And this machine is quite different from the one he's designed, but they seem to be winning a lot of contracts lately.

NEARY: Well, can a nonprofit venture like One Laptop per Child really ever win against Intel and Microsoft?

Mr. STECKLOW: Well, it's won in Uruguay, so I guess it's potentially possible. But I think one of the mistakes he's made, which I think he's readily acknowledges is he tried a top-down approach, where he negotiated with the top leaders of these countries, and, you know, some of them are no longer in power. Some of them, you know, agreed, like, in principle, to buy large quantities of these.

But then when they heard from the bureaucrats below in the ministries of education who were much more familiar with say, Windows, and buying Windows-type machines, you know, they had second thoughts. So as a result, he's had a change of strategy and he's now accepting much smaller orders.

And he's now offering the machine under a kind of a hybrid charitable arrangement to American and Canadian consumers who are allowed to now to purchase a machine and buy a second one and donate that to a country like, say, Haiti or Rwanda.

NEARY: Nicholas Negroponte, who's the chairman of One Laptop per Child, joins us now from the studio on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nicholas Negroponte, good to have you with us.

Mr. NICHOLAS NEGROPONTE (Chairman and Founder, One Laptop per Child): Thank you.

NEARY: Now, you started with very big plans for this computer. We've been hearing that they didn't go exactly the way, I think, you wanted. I would assume that you're not particularly happy about that at this point.

Mr. NEGROPONTE: I think it's actually a very big mistake to think that the plans have been derailed. What's happened is slightly different. First of all, to just give us a very specific example, I've known Bill Gates his entire adult life. And we not only talk with Microsoft weekly, they get our first machines off the assembly line. They have Windows running on it. It's - the issue isn't do we or can we run Windows? It's how does that relate to open source? So it's not a matter of trying to slay giants that we can't beat. Likewise, I actually went to Intel first and they turned us down three years ago.

So I went to EMT who did the process, processor in the machine. So as we grew, we have found that people who are interested in One Laptop per Child often miss the point that it's not a laptop project.

And so a head of state has been pretty good at recognizing that the most precious natural resource of any country is its children. And we have no sales marketing distribution or profit margin, which represents 50 percent of the cost of any laptop, of any cell phone, so it's not possible for a commercial entity to "compete" quote, unquote, with us. It's not just possible.

So when we see laptops that are being sold for $230 or $200 and we scratched deeper, we find that that's promised if they order several million three years from now because otherwise it would be sheer dumping. You can't make it for that price.

So what we find ourselves doing ironically - and it has slowed us down, but not very much - is competing on laptops, and that's what is a shame because the number 300,000, which Steve just mentioned is absolutely correct. But that's what we're building by the end of this year, and we just started building last week.

So if you take 300,000 and divide it by the number of weeks left in this calendar year or - we even include part of January, which may happen because of the Christmas vacation - that's still multiplies out to several million machines next year without even counting significant growth. So…

NEARY: Okay.

Mr. NEGROPONTE: …we're late, but we're not off track.

NEARY: I may be about to ask, like, the most naive question possible. But as I was weighing about this, I kept thinking, well, why can't they all just join forces, work together and come up with the perfect laptop for the perfect price that can be sold to the countries and to the children that need them.

Mr. NEGROPONTE: Well, it depends on whether you look at children as a market or a mission.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NEGROPONTE: And, as a profit-making company, you have to. You have a fiduciary responsibility to treat it as a market. Now, you can do things that are called corporate social responsibility, but these tend to be very small. And our mission is, in fact, to reach the poorest children in the most remote places.

So our job is to go out and to take on the hardest countries, the hardest places. Now, the six nations that I went to in the beginning to get to do a million each, whether it was naive, right or wrong, doesn't really matter. It established for the two-year period sufficient credibility for the manufacturers of our laptop to start the ball rolling, and for others like Intel to go in and market a laptop.

We view that as a success. We don't compete with Intel. If every child on this planet used an Intel laptop three years from now, that would be delightful, because I'm not on the laptop business. What we are is in the education business. We want children to be connected and we want the poorest, most remote children to be connected.

NEARY: I'm curious, Steve Stecklow, listening to Mr. Negroponte now, would you go back on saying that his plan has been derailed by the power of his idea, or that it's the power of his idea is actually getting other people to do something very similar, perhaps for different reasons, nonetheless?

Mr. STECKLOW: Well, if he considers it a success if Intel comes in and sells 150 million classmate laptops, then his idea hasn't been derailed at all. But to say that he's not, you know - he may feel he's not competing against the likes of Intel, but I can tell you that Intel certainly seems to view his machine as direct competition because as he well knows there's marketing material they've distributed in countries like Mongolia just last month, and Nigeria, where they do head-to-head comparisons of the two machines, and they declared a victor of being their machine.

So they, they certainly don't see this as, you know, some great charitable mission for them. I mean, I'll tell you it's part of their kind of charitable mission, but they definitely seem to see it as a threat. And also, you know, he has pointed out that earlier this year, Bill Gates, who had attacked the One Laptop per Child machine directly, you know, introduced a version of Windows for developing countries for $3. And this isn't just Windows, it's Microsoft Office and other software.

I mean, these are hundreds of dollars worth of software. He said at a meeting in April that, you know, this was a direct response to his effort. And you know, I think that's quite credible. Microsoft completely denies this, but they are now actively promoting this pack, this software package to countries, you know, many of which were considering buying his machine.

NEARY: We're talking with Steve Stecklow. He's a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Also, Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of One Laptop per Child. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're going to take a call now from Philip(ph). Philip is calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Philip.

PHILIP (Caller): Yes, good afternoon. I'm enjoying the program. As a matter of fact, I did see a rerun on C-SPAN a couple of nights ago with Professor Negroponte on air, and he told me on that computer immediately. And right now, I am surprised that the rest of the world have not jumped off of one of his computers because I believe he did say that his computer do not need electric -electricity to have his product. You know, you can crank it by hand, and…

NEARY: I think that's changed.

PHILIP: …you know, and you can get it going. So even if these other computer companies like - whoever comes to compete against him and he wants to take his computer in the jungle of Africa and Bill Gates bring his computer or all his fancy gadgets on it. If he can't get his started, his is no good.

NEARY: Al right. Thanks for calling, Philip. And actually…

Mr. NEGROPONTE: Can I just…

NEARY: …Mr. Negroponte…

Mr. NEGROPONTE: Yeah.

NEARY: …I was wondering if you could…

Mr. NEGROPONTE: I would…

NEARY: …explain, describe what the computer is actually.

Mr. NEGROPONTE: Well, let me just quickly say one thing, and just by analogy just to, you know, to Steve's remarks. If I were the World Food Programme and I were in a remote village serving food to the children at school, and McDonald's sets up something into that village, McDonald's might view the World Food Programme as competitor, but the, you know, the World Food Programme does not view McDonald's as a competitor. And that's a situation I'm in.

And if McDonald's can serve the whole village, then the World Food Programme would actually retreat. And I don't have any need to sell laptops. What I want to make sure is that the children get them. The problem is that - and let me use some of the specific machines on the market - they don't even come close.

As Philip, your caller, just pointed out, we do indeed have a crank contrary to the Wall Street Journal story. And we can crank the laptops. We distribute the crank with the laptops, and you can run it on human power. You don't need to plug it in; a solar panel smaller than a normal piece of paper can also drive it.

So there are things like that - the sunlight-readable display of this laptop is very important because kids use it outdoors, and you can use it in that mode for 23 hours on one battery charge.

Those are very important features. The so-called mesh network that allow them all to communicate to each other, and then at very low cost you connect one child to the Internet and a thousand are connected.

So there are features we can - we don't do side-by-side comparisons at One Laptop per Child. But if you did them, the other machines don't even come close, not even close.

So we still have to keep doing what we're doing. And whether it is to get people to copy it - and we help people copy it, everything we do as open source, everything we do is made available to others to copy it.

NEARY: Why is this where you have put so much of your energy? Why do you think the technology divide is such an important chasm that needs to be close? I mean, there might be people who would say, well, you know, other kinds of aid are - you know, money could be better spent on other forms of aid. What makes this so important to you?

Mr. NEGROPONTE: Well, it makes it important not just to me, but I think to all of us because any big problem, whether it's world peace, whether it's the environment, whether it's population control - I mean, you name the big problem and without question, the solutions - and there's always more than one -include education. In some cases, could be just education, and in no case whatsoever can it be without an element of education.

And if we continue having a world without primary education, and you have to realize that as much - it depends how you count, I admit - but as much as 30 percent of the children of this world don't have what you and I would call primary education. Fifty percent of the children in Nigeria and Pakistan don't go to schools.

Seventy-five percent of the girls in Afghanistan don't go to school. So you have situations where you just can't solve that problem by building more schools and training more teachers. One should do that, but you have to do something else. And what our suggestion is is to leverage the children themselves, to get children to be more active in their own learning, to collaborate with other children, and to do the kind of learning that we know they can do, not instead of teachers or instead of schools, but outside a school.

If you take Africa, on average, children spend twelve and a half hours per week in a classroom. So even if everything is perfect, all you've got is twelve and a half hours. So think of this as a book, the new book, it's connected and it will be available to the poorest children in the most remote parts of the world.

NEARY: Nicholas Negroponte, thanks so much for joining us.

Nicholas Negroponte is chairman of One Laptop per Child. We were also joined by Steve Stecklow, reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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