“Buy a Laptop for a Child” Project going steady
September 24th, 2007

As Steve Lohr informs us, it seems that the ambitious project “Buy a Laptop for a Child” didn’t follow so far the very optimistic development scenario that its founders initially envisioned. Nicholas Negroponte, the founding director of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory and chairman of the nonprofit project, expressed his disappointment towards the degree of commitment coming from various heads of state, after a few talk rounds.

The XO Laptop was especially created for children in the developing countries. It’s definitely far from the top performances of today’s laptops, but it’s cheap (around $100 each) and “sturdy enough to withstand harsh conditions in rural villages. It is also extremely energy efficient, with power consumption that is 10 percent or less of a conventional laptop computer.” It’s also loaded with “high-resolution screens, cameras and peer-to-peer technology so the laptops can communicate wirelessly with one another. The machine runs on free, open source software.” Besides serving an invaluable educational purpose, this initiative aims at “broadening the community of users, broadening the base of ideas and contributions, and that will be tremendously valuable.”

Even if things didn’t go right from the start as easy as anticipated — “Orders of a million each from populous Nigeria and Brazil did not materialize” –, there are a few successes and there’s still enough room for realistic hope in the near future: “Peru, for example, will buy and distribute 250,000 of the laptops over the next year — many of them allocated for remote rural areas. Mexico and Uruguay, Mr. Negroponte noted, have made firm commitments. In a sponsorship program, the government of Italy has agreed to purchase 50,000 laptops for distribution in Ethiopia.”

Besides talking directly with governmental representatives as main strategy, the project board thought of a secondary strategy that looks to involve American and Canadian citizen in a sort of part charity, part self gain initiative where people could buy two XO laptops at the price of a one ($400), getting to keep one while they would donate the other. The project supporters feared the XO won’t be as appealing to the “developed” kids as an Apple, Hewlett-Packard or Dell standard, but a focus-group with American children between 7 and 11 vanished their fears, as the participants “liked the fact that the machine was intended specifically for children, and appreciated features like the machine-to-machine wireless communication.”

Steve Lohr’s article says something interesting when closing its the end: “Each country will have different ideas about how to use the machines.” This made me think of how technology is adapted by a certain population in a certain environment. I think we will live to see a whole array of social and cultural phenomenas coming from each country where this program will be implemented.

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