If the world voted for the most talked-about design project of recent years, there’d only be one contender. More words have been spoken, written and blogged about the efforts of the non-profit organization One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to develop a $100 (Rs4,200) educational laptop for the world’s poorest children than anything else—and that includes the iPhone.
OLPC has scooped most international design prizes, and dazzled design conferences. “It has done for humanitarian design what the iPod has done for consumer products,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. “The world will never be the same.”
Glued: Renzo, 8, reading on his XO laptop in Arahuay, an Andean hilltop village in Peru. Some 300,000 kids are using OLPC laptops and another 300,000 will receive them soon
But OLPC has also been hammered by the tech industry (for suggesting that a computer could cost as little as $100) and by development economists (for suggesting that poor countries should buy laptops, not books or food). Its educational methodology has been attacked, and environmentalists fret about the eventual fate of its discarded computers.
Well, OLPC isn’t perfect, and like so many idealistic initiatives, it has found operating in developing countries to be much more difficult than it ever expected. It is three years since its founder, Nicholas Negroponte, who also co-founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, announced his plan for a $100 laptop.
OLPC hasn’t provided nearly as many computers to needy kids as it had hoped, or hit its $100 target price.
Yet some 300,000 children are already using its XO laptops, giving them access to the Internet, electronic books, games, cameras and other learning opportunities. Another 300,000 kids are soon to receive them, too.
Ever since the first test models arrived in schools, OLPC has been upgrading the XO’s design, and developing a second-generation computer. The plans for the new design, the XOXO (or XO 2), are to be unveiled today.
Scheduled for introduction in 2010, it will be a tablet computer that several kids can use at once, and will combine the functions of a laptop, electronic book and electronic board. Negroponte describes it as “a totally new concept for learning devices” and hopes to sell it for $75 in 2010. OLPC’s former chief technology officer, Mary Lou Jepsen, intends to sell the laptops she’s now developing for her start-up company, Pixel Qi, for $75, too.
OLPC’s critics may scoff at its ambition to produce a $75 computer, when it’s so far off its $100 target, but no one could accuse Negroponte and his colleagues of lacking courage.
Some 18 months ago, the first batch of XO test models was leaving a Shanghai factory. They were awaiting confirmation of orders for the first five million laptops in order to start industrial production. Negroponte expected to start selling them for $150 each, and for the price to tumble, as orders increased, to $100 later this year.
Some of those orders were cancelled when governments changed, or crises struck. Negroponte also accuses the IT industry of undermining OLPC. “Companies like Intel disrupt sales by pretending that they might be interested in the same ‘market’,” he said. You could argue that one of OLPC’s successes is to have spurred private sector companies, such as Intel, Dell and Microsoft, to develop cheaper computers for developing countries. The question is whether their prices would remain low without the competitive pressure from such a formidable non-profit as OLPC. Despite the disappointing orders, it still started industrial production last November, but the XO currently costs $187, and could go up by $8 or $10 next month, because of the declining US dollar and rising raw material and Chinese labour costs.
Even though OLPC has missed its targets, selling a laptop for less than $200 is an extraordinary achievement, as is enabling hundreds of thousands of poor children to own a computer.
“We’ve received incredible letters from teachers telling us how the laptops changed their method of teaching,” said Yves Béhar, whose San Francisco consultancy, Fuseproject, designs OLPC’s hardware. “Instead of lecturing continuously for an hour and losing the pupils’ concentration, they lecture for 10 minutes, then let the children explore and cross-reference teaching material for 5 minutes. This reduces discipline problems dramatically, and improves children’s ability to assimilate the subject. We also receive amazing letters from kids who say that they wouldn’t let go of their laptops under any circumstances.”
Fuseproject has been upgrading the XO’s design since testing began. It has added coloured XOs to the case tops (in 400 different colour combinations) to help the kids identify their laptops. The hard plastic feet have been replaced by rubber ones to stop computers slipping off desks, and the keyboard strengthened by a steel plate. The case has been made water-resistant, and its surface given what Béhar calls “goose-bump texture”, making it easier to grip and less likely to scratch.
The software is revised in weekly updates by the design team led by Lisa Strausfeld at Pentagram in San Francisco. All of the lessons learnt from using the XO have been applied to the development of the XOXO tablet computer, and to an interim model, the XO 1.5, which is to be introduced in spring next year. Negroponte says that it will be “faster, brighter, cheaper and even less power-demanding”, and that OLPC is soon to announce new partnerships, which should speed up its progress.
Will the XOXO prove more successful than its predecessor? If it does, this controversial design project could help millions of poor children realize their educational potential. “Even if it were to fold tomorrow, OLPC will forever be an important milestone in the history of design, in particular a testament to the power that design has to influence policy, economics and social studies”, said Antonelli. “OLPC has raised the bar really high in providing an example of true design teamwork—and of the need to support it with a sound publicity machine and a creative business plan that are as designed as the computer itself.”
©2008/International Herald Tribune