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.