A Dream for Ten Dollars

This is a long story. It has a big dream, drama, betrayals, intrigue, disappointment and tragedy in it. It’s a story of a dream that students worldwide would have cheap laptops to help them with education. It’s a story of how that dream, is, sadly, still a dream.

It began with one man – Nicholas Negroponte. Founder of MIT Media Labs, he set out to build a cheap laptop, and launched his world-famous ‘One Laptop Per Child’ (OLPC) project. A cheap, scaled-down laptop for children, to be available at $100 a piece, would revolutionize education, he and his team believed. The first prototype was unveiled in 2005.

The online technology magazine Ars Technica reported these specifications:

  • 500 MHz CPU
  • 1 GB Memory
  • WiFi
  • Megapixel LCD
  • 4 USB Ports
  • Battery and Cool Hand Crank
  • Linux

The project received enormous media interest, and many countries including Brazil, China, Thailand, Egypt, and South Africa expressed an interest in buying the OLPCs. AMD, News Corp., Red Hat, BrightStar, and Google all agreed to help in the development.

It had a number of teething troubles. Bringing the cost of components down to meet the $100 per unit price seemed (and are still) insurmountable. It was dismissed by Intel (whose rival AMD provides the semi-conductor chips to the OLPC) as a ‘gadget’ and not a laptop, and that the economies of scale which the OLPC project was banking on (to keep costs low) would never materialize. Despite this bad blood, interest did remain high among governments of developing countries, especially China. And use of such devices in education has been on the rise, even though the original children (poor ones in poor countries) for whom it is meant are yet to get access.

The OLPC XO Laptop

Nevertheless, Intel went ahead and developed its own ‘Classmate PC’ (read an early review here), as a rival to the OLPC. It also claimed it had orders from Mexico, Nigeria, India, and Brazil. Now here comes the India connection. At this stage (2006), India had evaluated and rejected the OLPC. India’s claims were that the health effects of radiation from the laptop were unknown, and India would not allow experimentation on its children. And the price was a big factor in saying no. It is odd then that Intel could claim orders from India, since its machine cost twice as much as OLPC’s.

In the following year, India made the announcement that it would launch a $10 laptop. If $100 per unit were a pipedream, what kind of dream was a $10 laptop? In the earlier half of the decade, India had launched the ‘Simputer’, a similar cheap-computing-for-the-poor-device, which subsequently went nowhere. Unsurprisingly, the announcement was met with skepticism.

Despite Indian government rejection, OLPC continued its pilot efforts in India. This included using the laptops in village schools, where electricity would be generated from cows. No, nothing would happen to the cows. They were to move round and round, driving a dynamo.

Cow Power

Meanwhile, Intel was pushing its Classmate PC in China and other markets, which infuriated OLPC. Intel was accused of dumping (selling deliberately at a loss) and attempting to push OLPC out of the market. And then suddenly, Intel and OLPC decided to be friends again, and Intel joined the OLPC board. They agreed to compete without malice, or so it seemed.

However, Negroponte changed stance and demanded that Intel discontinue the Classmate PC in favor of OLPC. Intel refused, and the agreement broke down. Nevertheless, the world was left better off with two competing technologies, and different governments have opted for the one or the other. To counter Intel’s sales strategy, OLPC announced the ‘Give 1 Get 1’ scheme – a person in a developed country could pay the price of two units, get one for himself and sponsor the other for a child in a poor country. Ars Technica reads it as desperation on part of OLPC. And delays in shipping to those who had subscribed to the scheme did nothing to help.

Meanwhile, the Indian project seemed to be heading nowhere. The $10 cost was never going to be met; it kept getting revised up towards $100. The idea that it was a laptop also came under contention. The BBC reported that it was more like a data storage device, which is a long way from being called a laptop. Adding to the muddle was the lack of any visual evidence, until the Hindu succeeded in obtaining a picture.

Indian $100 dtata storage device

The Hindu's Picture

Swinging back to the OLPC project, it had suffered a few disappointments. A Nigerian-owned company, LANCOR, sued it for patent infringement. A security expert resigned, protesting OLPC’s increasing behavior like a business (and not a charity). It was forced to downsize, and the OLPC v2 looks quite unlike a laptop.

XO v2

The OLPC XO v2

In the middle of all this bad news, OLPC had good news from India. The $10 laptop scheme having run into the ground, India ordered 250,000 units from OLPC in 2009, much because of pressure from its states.

In the midst of all this, was Apple’s new blockbuster, the iPad. And now tablets were the way forward, laptops were oh-so-Middle-Ages. India turned around and announced a new venture – the Sakshat tablet, at $35 a piece. On 22 July 2010, Minister for HRD Kapil Sibal unveiled a prototype. Or rather two.

Kapil Sibal shows Sakshat Tablet

Kapil Sibal shows Sakshat Tablet

A review (read it here) seemed upbeat about it, listing the following features:

  • 2GB of RAM memory
  • run Linux
  • connect to the internet over WiFi
  • open PDFs
  • play YouTube videos

The review also shows a different image from the one BBC displayed.

Kapil Sibal shows Sakshat Tablet

Kapil Sibal shows Sakshat Tablet

This time the launch wasn’t botched. There were enough specimens for journalists to see, technical details are available for inspection, and there’s a YouTube close-up of how it works:

India’s government has a tendency to launch big schemes that err on the optimistic side, that then end in damp squibs. Over the years, that’s led to skepticism and pessimism that’s made us all into nattering nabobs of negativity. Is this promise going to come true at all? Will children anywhere in the world, really have a laptop they can use to learn their lessons?

About ozymandias

What am I? A body and brain, products of carbon concatenation chemistry, an intelligence and conscience to enable bits of DNA evolve. Maybe a pharaoh, maybe a dung-beetle, never more than a safe conduit for some genes.
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