LAS VEGAS -- Nicholas Negroponte, who visited the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) here Wednesday to promote his two-year-old One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, had hoped by this time to announce sales of millions of low-cost XO-1 computers in developing countries.
Instead, he was only able to announce that some 162,000 XO's had been sold, mostly through a "Give One, Get One" program launched during the last two months of 2007.
These were all individual sales, not the mass purchases by governments of developing nations who are the targets of this idealistic non-profit program. However, Negroponte declined the opportunity to blame this shortfall on the "Intel fiasco," the withdrawal of semiconductor giant Intel from the OLPC board.
Indeed, with a computer containing chips made largely by AMD, Intel's arch-rival, and with Intel promoting its own ultra-cheap laptop for children, called the Classmate, the OLPC/Intel alliance faced worse prospects than Britney Spears in family court.
Nor did Negroponte blame the program's slow start on the failure to meet the goal of producing a $100 laptop. The XO-1, made in Taiwan by Quanta, the world's largest laptop maker, trialed in Uruguay and Nigeria last year at $188 per unit.
Negroponte, who took a leave from his leadership of the M.I.T. Media Lab to found OLPC, implied that Intel's departure boiled down to a clash of principles. Intel showed a clear interest in selling Classmate for a higher price than the XO and for at least a modest profit, a strategy that Negroponte characterized as seeming exploitive in the world's poorest countries. "We really had to be a non-profit, in order to keep the moral purpose absolutely clear," said Negroponte. By carrying to a head of state the message that OLPC was not in it for the money, he added, "There is no question in that person's mind what the program is about."
While playing down the issue of Intel's defection, Negroponte used the big stage of CES " the world's largest consumer products show " to explain to a technical audience the innovations both in education and computer design that have made it possible to build, for children, a sophisticated PC costing less than $200. He emphasized the fact that most personal computers should be a lot cheaper than they are.
Negroponte noted that, on average, the cost of any electronic device in the market drops 50 percent in 18 months, thus reducing margins and returns for its makers. To offset this decline, manufacturers add features. "An obesity occurs," said Negroponte.
"It turns most things, including laptops, into SUVs, so that most of the power is used to move the car, not the person."
The result of selling "feature-rich" PCs in the Third World, said Negroponte, results in a scene he has often observed. He finds first-graders actively engaged in learning how to use a computer.
"But when I look closer, these six- and seven-year-olds are learning Word, Excel and Power Point. And I want to cry. That's not what six-year-olds should be learning. Children should be using this to learn learning, not to learn a specific program."
Ironically, said Negroponte, a powerful tool for children to "learn learning" " that is, to learn the skills of thinking and problem-solving " is computer programming, a discipline that has disappeared from schools in most developed countries. He cited experiments that required a pupil to "program" something as simple as drawing a circle. This "always fails" the first time, he said, forcing the pupil to "de-bug" the problem.
"You look at it, you find what's wrong, you go back in, and you try again," said Negroponte. "Children who engaged in that kind of programming transferred that kind of learning to other things."
The tool Negroponte has devised and built to facilitate the learning of learning is as sleek, clever and rugged as any laptop ever created. Among the necessary features Negronponte insisted on in the XO-1's design, because it would be exposed largely to outdoor settings, was "no holes."
The only hole in the laptop, where mud, dust and other pollutants might enter, is the power jack. Other vulnerable openings, including USB and telecommunications links, are concealed beneath a swiveling set of antennae built into the laptop's frame. The XO achieves connectivity with the Internet and within a local "mesh network" inexpensively through satellite dishes, antennae and boosters that serve, typically, one or more villages and as many as 1,000 laptops.
Perhaps most cunning in the XO's design is that it is maintainable by its underage users. Negroponte cited the laptop's display. He noted that, in a typical PC, replacing a failed screen requires a new display costing as much as half the price of a new computer. In the XO, he said, "You take out four screws and replace a little bar of LED lights that cost less than a dollar."
Negroponte returned to automotive analogies, comparing the relatively accessible engine of a 30-year-old car with its 21st-century counterpart, which has to be hooked up to a computer before most repairs are possible.
"You couldn't design [the XO] like modern-day cars," he said. "You have to make them more field maintainable, in this case by the kids. Ninety percent of the maintenance and care of these laptops is done by kids."
Despite the recent setbacks and caution among many developing nations for whom One Laptop Per Child is targeted, it is the elegance and sturdiness of this technology, coupled with the potential he has seen in children taking part in trials, that buoys Negroponte's optimism that OLPC will catch on. It also doesn't hurt his cause that he has powerful partners in the effort, among them Quanta and AMD, as well as Brightstar, eBay, Google, News Corporation, SES, Nortel Networks and Red Hat.
Maybe enough to get the last laugh with Intel?