The $100 (well, almost) laptop is here
Despite multiple roadblocks, the team behind the One Laptop Per Child initiative is ready to deliver. Fortune's David Kirkpatrick profiles the innovative approach to both product and marketing.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- There's only one other device out there right now as cool as the iPhone, and until recently it was impossible to get your hands on one. But now you can buy the greenest computer there is, which also happens to be a great way to use the Internet, a superb eBook reader, a tremendous tool for creativity and education, and the ultimate device for getting kids excited about computing. And it's beautiful to boot.
It once was known as the $100 laptop, but you'll have to pay $400 if you want the machine now called the XO. It isn't easy to change the world. But instead of allowing obstacles to deter him from his goal of getting inexpensive laptop computers to the poor children of the world, Nick Negroponte and his many allies have taken a new tack.
Faced with repeated setbacks in its efforts to jump-start the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project by convincing governments in the developing world to order one million at a time, Negroponte & Co. have a new strategy. Those of us in the U.S. can order the innovative machines ourselves, and in the process help deploy them to poor kids.
The Give One Get One (G1G1) program was suggested by Amazon.com (Charts, Fortune 500) CEO Jeff Bezos on a visit to OLPC's Cambridge offices last year. During the week of November 12 you'll be able to go to XOgiving.org and order one for yourself. In exchange for your $400 you'll also get a $200 tax writeoff. Half your money will go to subsidize the donation of an XO to a poor child in one of the world's Least Developed Countries (an official designation of the world's poorest places like Haiti, Mali, or Cambodia). If you're one of the first 30,000 people who buy, you should be able to have a machine by Christmas. (The nonprofit also welcomes donations from people who want to help but don't need an XO themselves.)
OLPC already has about 7,000 machines in demonstration projects in about 15 countries - including Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, and Rwanda. By getting many more thousands in use with the money it gains from G1G1, OLPC hopes to show governments around the world how well they work, and make it less politically unpalatable to make a big investment. Says Walter Bender, Negroponte's top deputy in the project: "The biggest disappointment for us has been how long it's taken to get started."
I don't think it will take long to elicit interest here. My wife wants one for our kitchen to get recipes off the Web - the XO almost cannot be damaged by spills or dropping it on the floor. (It was designed for kids who live in extreme climates and is waterproof and dustproof.) The screen is readable in any light. It works beautifully with Google search, or indeed with any Google (Charts, Fortune 500) application. (Google is one of many companies that have supported the project with its money and suggestions.)
While it does look like it was made for kids - with its bright colors and almost silly antennae "ears" and a semi-indestructible curved design - it is a masterpiece of industrial design. And that applies both inside and out. It's green because it uses an unprecedentedly low amount of power. The battery lasts six hours between charges, and longer if you turn off the light in the screen. You can still see the image because the XO has a breakthrough "paper" mode which works entirely with reflected light.
David Pogue of the New York Times on Thursday gave a rave review to the XO, calling it "absolutely amazing" and "a total kid magnet." This is a superb machine for getting kids anywhere excited about learning, and for helping them understand more about computing. Any country that aims to fully participate in the digitizing world needs millions of citizens conversant with digital tools. "It's going to be an entrepreneurial force in these kids' lives," says Bender. "It's not only about consuming but about creating information." For an enthusiastic endorsement from a development expert read this post by Ethan Zuckerman, of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
The XO is no replacement for your Dell. There are critical things it cannot do, like store lots of photographs and music. There's no certainty that it will print on whatever printer you happen to own. And don't expect lots of customer support: OLPC is not set up to provide it. But instead buy this machine for its unique charms - as a learning tool for a kid at home or as a web-surfing machine that seems to run forever on a battery at Starbucks.
And do it also to help keep this amazing project from losing momentum. OLPC - through inventive marketing and by developing an amazing machine - has gotten the whole world to understand that computers can be used to educate and empower poor kids no matter where they live. Now let's make it happen.