Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

G1G1 is a good idea. And, for the record, so is OLPC.

The One Laptop Per Child team has responded to a good idea offered by countless bloggers, wellwishers, critics and journalists: sell the XO-1 laptop to the general public in a way that helps subsidize uptake of the device in the developing world. Nicholas Negroponte has announced a program called “Give 1 Get 1″, which will allow people in the US and Canada to pay $399, and receive a laptop. The laptop costs approximately $188 to produce, which means that the remainin $211 subsidizes the purchase of an additional laptop for use in the developing world. The laptops go on sale at xogiving.org on November 12th and will be available for only two weeks. (I would recommend signing up for an email reminder on the site if you’re planning on buying one. Walter Bender is quoted on the BBC as saying that the first 25,000 would ship before the end of the year – I suspect this may mean that there’s an anticipated first run of 25,000 and that anyone not in that first group might have a long wait.)

It will be very interesting to see what the market for the laptop is like in the US and Canada. I’m buying one – obviously – because I’ve been fascinated by the project from its inception and look forward to having a device to play with, customize and get to know. I suspect it will occupy a place of honor in our living room and serve as the “lender laptop” to houseguests who show up without one. But I wonder whether there’s much of a market outside the hardcore geek market. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, while the machine is an amazingly slick piece of engineering, it’s not really scaled for grownups, and most business users would be better served with a used laptop than adapting to the OLPC’s itty-bitty keyboard.

What may be most important about this project is the fact that it’s going to put laptops into the hands of the watchers and critics of the project, some of whom are getting downright cranky. My friend Cyrus Farivar has a deliciously nasty article on Slate today with the memorable subtitle: “The latest sign that Nicholas Negroponte’s cheapo-computer scheme will never work.” He points out that the price of the laptop has increased from $100 to $188, moving in the wrong direction to achieve $50 by 2010, and that Negroponte has adjusted the number of laptops a country needs to purchase to participate from a million to a quarter million and now down to 100,000. Despite these reductions, “How many countries have signed up now? Still zero.”

The New York Times is reporting that there are firm commitments by at least four nations to purchase the machines:

Peru, for example, will buy and distribute 250,000 of the laptops over the next year — many of them allocated for remote rural areas. Mexico and Uruguay, Mr. Negroponte noted, have made firm commitments. In a sponsorship program, the government of Italy has agreed to purchase 50,000 laptops for distribution in Ethiopia.

But the article goes on to mention that large orders from Brazil and Nigeria have yet to materialize. And Negroponte is upfront about the frustrations in bringing the project to scale:

“I have to some degree underestimated the difference between shaking the hand of a head of state and having a check written,” said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the nonprofit project. “And yes, it has been a disappointment.”

It’s worth drilling into that comment. Negroponte has been amazingly effective in selling the vision of a laptop for every child in the world. He hasn’t been very effective in selling the actual laptops.

I don’t think this is because the laptops are disappointing, but because those sales tasks are very different. It’s not hard to convince a nation’s leader that he or she wants citizens to be able to compete in a global information economy, invoking visions of Nigeria turning into an oursourcing center like India. But it’s much harder to get a Minister of Education to commit a huge percentage of an annual education budget to a project that hasn’t been implemented widely anywhere in the North. If I were an education minister, I’d have hard questions about whether my teachers would use these devices, how I’d train them to use them, how we’d develop locally approriate curiculum for them, and so on.

Some nations are interested in the project, but have been chased off by the massive investment required to participate – lowering the minimum purchase will help, but so will putting thousands of machines into the hands of developers, enthusiasts and educators, who may take some of the steps neccesary to demonstrate how the XO-1 can be a useful tool in and out of the classroom.

I think Cyrus is wrong – and I think he knows he’s wrong – when he harps on the price point of the device. Everyone who follows consumer electronics understands that devices drop in price when they’re produced in volume. With larger orders, we’d expect the XO-1 price to drop substantially. Also, as a commenter on Slashdot observed, we’ve seen the value of the US dollar drop sharply since the announcement of the project – that combined with increases in the costs of some raw materials might help explain why the current salesprice of the laptop is higher than promised.

Wayan Vota, another friend and critic of the laptop project, is more sympathetic in his assesment of the announcement:

But rather than kick a man when he’s down, I’d like to say “Thank you” to Dr. Negroponte. He’s surprised me by actually admitting his mistake; I didn’t think his expansive ego would’ve permitted it. In addition, he is trying to correct his mistake and save OLPC production.

See, the OLPC USA sales plan shows failure in Negroponte led sales plan, not the overall idea. The developing world still wants XO laptops, and wants to buy “$100 laptops”, just not in million-unit blocks with no maintenance plan.

I think that’s right on. I think that making it possible for countries to experiment with OLPC, learning how to train teachers and develop content before making commitments in the hundreds of millions of dollars is a smart way to go. And I think there’s a bit of schadenfreude taking place in the geek community when Negroponte gets beaten up. He’s done an astounding job of getting people excited about this device, and until people have the device in their hands – and more importantly, in the hands of the children who are supposed to benefit from it – some people are going to be upset about promises outpacing reality.

10 Responses to “G1G1 is a good idea. And, for the record, so is OLPC.”

  1. Wayan says:

    Ethan,

    For all my sympathy for Negroponte’s efforts, I cringe when I hear him saying there are confirmed orders or firm commitments when no government has announced the same. He’s played that card a little too often for me to believe his sales proclamations.

    Or I’ll believe it when I hear it from the Peruvians, Uruguayans, or Italians. Carlos Slim announced he’s buying them for Mexican libraries (not schools) and Uruguay is still in mid proposal evaluation. Peru and Italy are still long shots.

  2. Let’s see… who’ll buy a small, durable (even waterproof) laptop that has a sunlight-readable screen, stylus capability and can be recharged with solar power or a pull cord? Anybody who works or plays outdoors, wants a computer, and finds durable PDA’s too expensive or impossible to type on! I’m an ecology grad student and I would LOVE to get one of these things for my field research. And at $400, it just might be affordable.

  3. Franklin63 says:

    Ethan, you say that “some people are going to be upset about promises outpacing reality”.

    This is a rather charitable assessment in this context. I think some people feel upset because they feel that Negroponte has consistently lied about the orders and commitments. You could chalk this up to the perennial optimism of those in the tech sector, I guess, or the simple hype of a salesman. Or the willful disregard for reality of a visionary. Or, less charitably, someone caught in his own reality distortion field. Or maybe just someone who is deliberately not telling the truth (possibly because he doesn’t think the press will call him on it; judging by the uncritical acceptance of most utterances — some of them whoppers — from the OLPC camp by people in the media, Negroponte is right to think no one, at least in the mainstream media, will call him his bluffs).

    This is too bad — why does he need to lie about this stuff? He is not accountable to shareholders, and presumably his board gives him a lot of leeway. (If OLPC were publicly traded he couldn’t get away with such pronouncements.)

    A lot of people feel passionate about the issue of computer use in education, and feel that the smarmy salesmanship (there is no other word for it) of Negroponte is sucking a lot of the oxygen out of this whole area, and that, when it blows up, it will take a lot of other good ideas and initiatives with it.

    Personally, I think this is a bit of an overreaction, but Negroponte tends to engender such overreactions in people.

    (My prediction: There will be a $100 laptop for use in education, and soon, but it won’t come from OLPC. It will come from some ruthlessly efficient Chinese or Indian firm looking for profits, wherever they can be found, not part of any ‘movement to save Third World education’.)

    On a related note:

    Does the NY Times do any fact-checking — or at least corroborate statements? Maybe it is just sloppy writing or editing, and the Lohr piece should have read “Peru, for example, will buy and distribute 250,000 of the laptops over the next year, *according to Negroponte*.” Presumably Lohr would source the fact from someone in Peru, if he had such a source. Despite all the scandals notwithstanding, I still expect more from the NY Times, at least on the simple Journalism 101 stuff.

  4. Henok says:

    Great news I am going to buy one. I am very thankful Negroponte’s make this decision and get to the business. Meanwhile, It would have been happyer I choose to whom I will give the laptop instead of OLPC givethe Laptop to the country they wanted. Still this is a good start. Thanks Ethan for sharing this great news.

  5. Nathan Kurz says:

    I think I agree with Cyrus on this: why all the convolutions when the (positive) forces of capitalism seem like they would work in your favor? Personally, I think the OLPC is a great idea, but doubling the price simply to directly link a purchase with a donation seems counterproductive.

    It seems like it would make better sense to price them with a reasonable profit and do your best to make it the must-give gift to all American schoolchildren this year. If higher volumes are going to lower the prices in the future, why not get as many of these into the hands of US and European students as you can?

    If it’s useful to have computers in the classroom (and I think it is), I think this is best shown by example. Wouldn’t these foreign governments be more likely to commit to large purchases if they saw parents buying them for their own children, and perhaps some well-funded first-world schools buying them for the entire classroom or district?

    Why all the games?

  6. Ethan says:

    Ah, it’s always fun to write about OLPC – it’s a guaranteed way to start a comment thread.

    Wayan, your point about the commitments mentioned in NYT is a good one – Negroponte has certainly referenced firm commitments before. Franklin’s point on NYT factchecking is a really interesting one – it would be a worthwhile research project to see if we can find statements in the Peruvian press, for instance, corroborating commitment. (I’m not volunteering for the job – I’m on the road – just suggesting that someone might want to take it on.)

    Nate, I think the reason for the G1G1 structure instead of a straightforward sales structure has to do with partners on the project. Negroponte recruited people to the project with the promise that the laptop wasn’t designed to take over the low-end laptop market. I suspect some of his major partners, especially Intel, would flinch if he announced a low-end, cost-competitive device for the US markets.

    I’m very interested in the tone of both the comments and Cyrus’s piece – has Negroponte pissed enough geeks off that people are now rooting for him to fail? Or is this just understandable frustration with something that’s taken too long and hasn’t delivered enough?

  7. I’m NOT rooting for him to fail, in fact, quite the opposite. I wish that it would and could work. I just don’t see how that’s possible given that the machine requires nearly a $20 mil investment up front, today. That’s a lot of scratch for any country, particularly those in the developing world. And that doesn’t take into account the training, maintenance, upgrades, or anything else.

    I’m frustrated because I feel like too many people are suckered into the idea that if you just shoot laptops at schoolkids that somehow they will flower into being better learners. I feel like that Negroponte and Co. are well-intentioned, rational, highly intelligent people. But, I don’t think they’ve really thought about, nor have brought in the right people to think about, how this will play out in the developing world. Atanu Dey (who I met with on Sunday at Ethan’s recommendation), argued the point that I borrowed towards the tail end of the piece, which is that all of these consumer tech products (PC, mobile phones, etc) started as products for the developed world and got to the point that now, just about anyone in India can afford a $10 mobile handset and pay $0.005 per minute for a phone call. It wasn’t that people thought that we need to design a handset for the developing world and bring down the cost of the device.

    I think that there are a lot of great things about Negroponte’s machine. The technology in there is impressive — when I was explaining the new battery tech in the XO to my 22-year-old cousin, the first thing she asked me was: “How come my laptop doesn’t last that long?” It’s a very salient point. Negroponte is right when he says that computers have a lot of fat in them, and I think if anything, the OLPC has shown that it is technologically possible to make a machine that has some of those technologies and is much cheaper than what’s out there.

    Clearly, I think he’s kickstarted a sub-sector of the industry and everyone is better-off for it — and I think he’s using his influence directly or indirectly to show that there is a market out there that these businesses have all but written off.

  8. George Snell says:

    Hi Ethan:
    Thanks for the hopeful and cynical free post on OLPC. I do the volunteer PR for them so I work closely with Nicholas and all the folks at OLPC. I can say with certainty that OLPC doesn’t lie.

    People forget that this is a completely open project — on a massive global scale. Things change rapidly like on any large and complicated technology project. OLPC is rebuilding and redesigning a laptop computer — with some amazing results.

    But rather than hiding behind board room doors — OLPC talks openly about the changes and challenges. They talk about the reality of the moment — knowing full well that things will change. Right now the project is on schedule and we’re hopeful that G1G1 will be a success.

  9. Roxy says:

    Prof Negroponte had an innovative idea before everyone else came into the picture. His philosophy is a noble one “the future is shaped by children” so let’s help them get educated. This project is not about laptops. It is about enabling children in developing countries to have access to primary education – something that they do not necessarily have access to.

    This is not a project about parachuting laptops, but about putting in place an education programme…. It is done in conjunction with ministries of education and not in a vacuum.

    I think there are lots of people out there who do not know enough about this project and its potential. Perhaps OLPC may wish to carry out an awareness building campaign by providing more background information about the programme so that everyone

    Let’s help OLPC make this come to fruition. If you can, donate a laptop.

  10. Many of us in the nonprofit/youth sector have been paying it forward with our blogs as much as possible, e.g. Here’s my update w/a gazillion new links and coverage on Shaping Youth:
    http://www.shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=776 but I’m wondering…w/all the Web 2.0 widgets isn’t there a ‘counter’ ticking down the deadline to 11/26 somewhere with ‘number sold’ and ‘number gifted’???

    Sure seems like there should be. Or a Facebook group to e-blast the cause for a final zap, etc.? I’m thrilled to get mine and dying to test it out in some remote (preferably sandy/tropical) developing country/locale…

    I’ve already pinged my fellow GWLN.org delegates at Women Leaders for the World in Africa, but I guess it doesn’t let you designate which country you ‘gift it to.’ sigh…ah, well, plenty of them in need…

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