One Laptop per Child – not a chance

I truly hate myself for this as it’s hard to put down what was and still is a very worthy campaign but I’m going to predict that the One Laptop per Child scheme is doomed to failure after it’s European release on November 17th was announced on the BBC.

For those who aren’t aware it was a scheme to produce a laptop for under $100 that could be purchased in the order of millions to provide access to computing to children in the developing world.

It never did get down to the $100 price tag, arrived late, had distribution problems and since then has shifted away from trying to get mass orders from governments to a sort of charitable ‘person from richer country buys two, they keep one and the other is donated’ scheme.

A great idea but it wasn’t particularly successful when they rolled out the scheme in the US and if the BBC article is correct, a price tag of £268 will kill it because to be fair, for that price, it’s crap.

Unless you want a laptop that looks like one of those Leapfrog toddlers learning things with a pitiful 256Mb of RAM, an undisclosed x86 processor, 1Gb of “mass storage” ie a solid state hard drive and a weight of 1.5Kg then it’s not a runner.

The principle was great, if they’d got them to market a couple of years ago as planned then they could have made a killing and would have found a rich seam or Western buyers signing up for what would have been then, a not too bad bit of kit to pick up for the little one here and feel good about donating one to a less well off child in some far flung region of our planet but things are decidedly different now.

£268 will buy you a lot in the current market. Typing this as I am on an MSI Wind (rebadged as an Advent 4211) that cost £280 back in July with an Intel Atom processor 2Gb of Ram (comes with 1Gb, I had it upgraded) an 80Gb hard drive, all the connectivity of a OLPC plus bluetooth and comes in half a kilo lighter (actually it is a bit heavier than the circa 1 kilo that I bought because I have a replacement 6 cell battery that adds a bit more to the weight but it’s still not more than the 1.5Kg weight of a OLPC). You could get these for £250 (£220 from PC World Business briefly) at one stage but PC World/Currys put the price back up. You can get exactly the same model rebadged as a Medion Akoya from Morrisons for £250 with a 160Gb hard drive the other week.

You could get an Acer Aspire One for a lot less or a Celeron based Eee PC 904 for the lower end of £200 or two original Eee PC 701’s for £268 if you shop around which still out-spec the OLPC.

Faced with those real consumer choices no one but a few trendy dinner party liberal types who want to boast about their charitable nature are going to fork out for a OLPC machine.

Sad I know. Personally I wish it were otherwise because the original idea was a very noble one but the market has been overhauled in the last 12 months alone and I just don’t see it working anymore particularly as consumers will be looking for a lot more for their money in the current economic climate.

2 thoughts on “One Laptop per Child – not a chance

  1. Well, I kind of agree, and kind of disagree with you. You’re right that the OLPC project has be somewhat overtaken by events in the netbook market, and that they got a bit outflanked by MS and Intel’s machinations, but don’t forget that the OLPC looks like it does to appeal to kids and to be distinctive, and that there are features very important to its intended user base, like the sealed keyboard and the daylight visible screen. I think one needs to factor in more than just the bare spec of the device – it’s not a cheap laptopm so much as a teaching/learning device. And I don’t think the G1G1 scheme is intended to be the sole distribution model.

    Are you blogging regularly again?


  2. Hi Robert. Last question first. Sort of blogging more regularly these days, I’ll try at least once a week if I can. The problem still remains that I like to do original researched posts if I can and that demands a lot of time which is still very much dominated by family and work.

    I think you’re right that it isn’t just about pure specification and perhaps I was seeing it more from the perspective of a developed Western market scenario. As far as I know the OLPC has effectively two sales models. The original direct buy in bulk to governments which to be fair didn’t work out; the millions of orders simply didn’t materialise.

    This shifted them away from direct sales to the G1G1 scheme based on a more charitable proposition of people in developed countries purchasing one for presumably their kids and another being donated. So far though it doesn’t seem to have shifted many units in the US and as my argument was, I sadly doubt it will in Europe.

    On the basis of its features outside of the straight specification, it does have some attractive offers like the non-glare screen for outside use and its general robustness. I think this lends itself well towards hot sunny countries with less established classroom based education systems, (I’m thinking various African countries here) but even in the case of other developing nations (I’m thinking South America and Asia) that value would be less as their education systems (horribly generalising here I know) are more established in part, due to greater urbanisation.

    In the context of those countries I would see governments looking at something more akin to the Intel Classmate being attractive. It’s robust in nature and suits the ‘kid uses at school, takes home and uses it there too’ model. They have seen large orders placed (Venezuela buying 1Million comes to mind, although it was nice to see they refused Windows and put Linux on theirs).

    I think that also represents another weakness of the OLPC machine. By going down the bespoke hardware route and ending up with a bespoke OS even if it is based on Linux they have painted themselves into a corner as regards flexibility to buyers.

    Compared to the Intel Classmate which as far as hardware goes is as near damn it an Asus Eee PC 701 it means that if the purchaser (primarily governments) want Windows XP, a more box standard distribution of Linux or say a well documented and supported distribution like Ubuntu that they can then customise to their own needs then that possibility is there. That makes it a much more attractive proposition to the OLPC.

    I think in the end, a lot of this is much more to do with the state of the market at the time. Cheap laptops to developing countries isn’t a new idea. I vaguely remember AMD trying something similar in 2004 and it failed. Combined with relatively cheap standardised components over the last 18 months, other companies like Intel, Asus, Acer and to a lesser degree MSI can now knock together machines that are to a large extent technically the same for much lower costs in terms of both manufacture and R&D. These factors weren’t there when OLPC designed their machine and were simply caught out.

    Still sad though.

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