June 20, 2006 11:42 AM PDT

Is $100 laptop project flawed?

The head of one of the largest charitable suppliers of refurbished PCs claims that there are some basic problems with creating a custom-made laptop for the developing world.

The One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, plan is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the IT industry, according to Tony Roberts, chief executive and founder of U.K. charity Computer Aid International.

Speaking to ZDNet UK last week, Roberts said that although he would be delighted if the OLPC project proved a success, he had severe reservations about the strategy underpinning the project.

"The real reason that this won't be successful is a misunderstanding of the history of technology. They are looking to introduce a nonstandard, untested platform...which they will only sell to governments," he said. "The decision to buy will be made by politicians who are elected every five years, and politicians generally don't take the decision to risk their political future on nonstandard technology."

The project aims to develop a portable PC for use by children in the developing world for about $100. The price has risen since the plan was first announced to about $135 to $140.

Speaking at the Red Hat Summit earlier this month, the head of the OLPC project, Nicholas Negroponte, said past attempts to give children in developing countries access to computers have failed because the children did not see the computers as their own and as a result did not engage with them as expected.

"People say, 'We just gave 100,000 PCs to schools, and they are still sitting in their boxes.'" Negroponte said. "The problem is that you gave them to the wrong people. The kids don't think they are theirs and see them as government property, or they are locked up after school."

But Roberts, who as well as heading up Computer Aid spent time as an academic lecturing on the historical introduction of new technologies into societies, said the OLPC project is also distracting from other worthwhile technology projects in the developing world.

"At the UN World Summit (where the OLPC prototype was first displayed last year), there were so many exciting projects that didn't get any attention because all eyes were on the OLPC," Roberts said.

Computer Aid has just celebrated shipping its 70,000th PC to the developing world. The organization, founded in 1998, refurbishes used PCs, routers, printers and other technology. It then ships them to a network of organizations in the developing world, where they are distributed to schools, universities and community groups.

The organization is looking to expand to include working with local health clinics to provide e-learning systems for nurses and tele-medicine capabilities. Medical specialists in the developing world are often limited to a capital city, so by providing more detailed patient information, medical staff can reduce the need to move critical patients.

Computer Aid is also involved in a joint project with the U.K. Met Office to create the infrastructure to allow weather information to be collected and analyzed locally in the developing world. At the moment, information collected from local weather stations is sent to a central office to be analyzed, and the information is then fed back.

But according to Roberts, the centralized system takes too long, so Computer Aid is helping equip the local stations with the means to interpret the information and relay it to the community more rapidly. "This information is critical. It can be the difference between life or death, or someone's livelihood. But at the moment, the systems just don't work," he said.

Computer Aid is also planning a charity bike ride next February in Kenya to raise awareness of the organization's work in that country.

If you would like to donate your business PCs, you can find more information through the Bridge the Digital Divide project run by Computer Aid and CNET Networks, publisher of News.com and ZDNet UK.

Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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Another Reasone to Keep The Crazy Aunt in the Basement
Problem number one--Linux, Problem number two--non-standard the professor says. Problem number three--Linux is a total failure as an desktop OS. Try to get kids to use an archaic OS like that is ridiculous!

Just keep Linux in the backroom or basement away from users and everything will be okay. Then maybe it will just go away or better yet die.
Posted by WJeansonne (480 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's Corrupt Governments That Are The Problem
If there are 100,000 computers sitting unopened and unboxed then it is more likely a problem with government corruption. Those boxes were probably opened, filled with bricks, and taped back shut. What the charity is really saying is that if they deploy the refurbished equipment directly to the local area that needs it, the equipment suddenly becomes operational. Therefore, if the $100 laptop project is to succeed, it will need to follow the same local deployment model and bypass the governmental levels above it.
Posted by maxwis (141 comments )
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But keep in mind that it's not only corruption, but also inefficiency.
I know a case in my country where about that number of PCs kept really unopened for at least ten years. It wasn't direct corruption (the computers were there, I saw them) it was just that bureaucracy and lack of interest kept the computers from being efficiently moved (oddly enough, one reason for that was that fears of corruption prevented somebody hiring an adequate company to do the deployment). Of course, the cause of most inefficiencies is probably corruption in the end, so this is just another form of the same disease. And the OLPC project will suffer from both. What a waste...
Posted by Hernys (744 comments )
Link Flag
This whole thing is so freakin' stupid
How about we quit wasting money on laptops that won't work and are guaranteed to cost 5 times as much as they think just in training and deployment and spend it on something worthwhile, like DDT deployment to eliminate malaria. I don't think the millions of people who die yearly from that disease (thanks to the WHO) really give a flying crap about laptops.
Posted by Neo Con (428 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Agree with one thing
DDT isn't a good solution to malaria because not only is it toxic but mosquitoes quickly build up resistance to it. It isn't true that if we would just flood the developing world with pesticides diseases like malaria would just disappear.

However, I do agree that having their own laptop is one of the least of their worries. If you live in a third world country impoverished country and don't even have to enough food to eat, your life isn't going to magically improve just because of a computer.
Posted by jdbwar07 (150 comments )
Link Flag
Or even electricity
One of the many reasons why this project will fail is the lack of electricity in the intended geographies and the unrealistic assumptions included in the generator design.
Spending that money in bringing electricity to those populations will raise their living standards way more than a broken laptop.
Posted by Hernys (744 comments )
Link Flag
They said no to a free osX
dumb nitwits
Posted by Peter Bonte (316 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Article is tainted by Microsoft monopoly.
A web search shows the following on the background of the critic's organization:

"Computer Aid is a Microsoft-certified refurbisher"

We already know that Gates has heavily criticized the project while conveniently overlooking Microsoft's own failures in the past.

The real problem is not Computer Aid, which is likely obligated to Microsoft, but Microsoft itself, with its attempts to sabotage efforts that do not fall in line with the monopoly.
Posted by b3timmons (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Attack the reasoner
not the reasoning. That seems to be your strategy.
Who cares who said it? What matters is that what they say is well founded and reasonable. The OLPC project is full of bad planning, bad strategy, whishful thinking and omissions. It will most probably fail (unless they swallow their egos, start listening, reassess their plans and make big changes) and it will be unfortunate, because those kids really need something to help them advance in their lives.
Posted by Hernys (744 comments )
Link Flag
Finally, there is a sensible article
The $100 laptop guys said no to free OSX and free Windows CE. They wanted to develop every thing from scratch and give that weird looking laptop to a kid Ethiopia so that he/she can stare at the lousy screen. By the way, that kid does not have maths and science text books to study!
Posted by pdude (65 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Lot of ignorant comments as usual...
I'm not sure the OLPC project will actually succeed, but a lot of comments here are quite misinformed. The reason Linux was chosen wasn't just because it was free (otherwise why not pick "free" OS X and I bet Gates would stump up a load of "free" licences for Windows too for the publicity and chance to wean users onto the teat of Windows), but because it was completely customisable, unlike OS X or Windows.

OLPC have taken Fedora Core 5 and heavily stripped it of unnecessary code, resulting in quite a streamlined GNOME desktop that runs fairly well on the very low-end hardware of the OLPC laptop. It still means that you can run the full range of Linux apps on the box (though weightier packages would be sluggish).

As for the comment that Linux is an archaic OS, that's ludicrous - it's actually the most modern OS out there, with major releases of distributions every 6-12 months. It's *Windows* that's the archaic OS - released 5 years ago, band-aided by a couple of service packs and never ending security updates...

It should be noted that the weak point of Linux isn't the "serious" applications (there's free equivalents of almost all major Windows apps), but the paucity of commercial (usually 3D) games. However, on a low-end laptop like this, you don't get 3D acceleration, so it's not such an issue (and there are plenty of good free 2D Linux games out there).
Posted by rklrkl (143 comments )
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