China should be an obvious beneficiary of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Scheme, which seeks to provide robust $100 portable Internet computers to children in developing countries. Behind the headlines of double digit growth and urban prosperity, two thirds of Chinese still live in the countryside and two hundred million people earn less than a dollar a day. Still, the Chinese government has not signed up to this project.
The OLPC XO-1 laptops are being made in China by Taiwan-based Quanta Computers. Mass production is just beginning, although the first prototypes were actually produced in Shanghai late last year. According to Linux Insider News, the current cost is still $176, but this is expected to fall as production gets underway. Countries such as Thailand, Uruguay and Brazil have signed up to buy the laptops in bulk, which they will then redistribute to children who qualify.
It looks like Chinese children will only be able to get hold of the XO-1s by buying it if it goes on sale at Christmas for $350 or $525. Profits will be used to buy laptops for children in countries that have signed up for the programme. We’d like to get our hands on this laptop. Even at the higher price, you get a rugged wi-fi laptop with its famous rabbit ear antenae, an AMD processor, 10 hours of battery life running a modified version of Fedora Linux called Sugar. It has flash memory rather than a hard drive, but you can plug extra storage devices into its 3 USB slots.
The vision of the OLPC XO-1 is firmly routed in the ‘learn by doing’ educational philosophy of the project’s director Nicholas Negroponte who believes that children will flourish if they are given appropriate hardware and software tools to develop studying and problem solving skills. Negroponte makes his case in terms of development. It is much more cost effective and educationally beneficial to give children a $100 laptop that will last for five years compared with buying them $20 of books every year over the same time frame.
We’re totally behind the charitable aims of Negroponte’s project, but we’re not sure you can turn children into geniuses just by throwing computer equipment at them. If that was the case then UK state-run schools would be teaming with little Einsteins. The UK spent billions on IT investment before they started to realise that they had to retrain teachers and reinvent learning methods.
Critics such as Om Malik have criticised the OLPC project for overlooking more important development priorities of food, housing, clean water, security and healthcare. Others see this project as a patronising attempt to bestow inferior technological cast offs on third world countries and there is a worry that corruption will see the misappropriation of these devices.
China’s slow response may be a case of wait and see what happens as a stream alternatives begin to appear in the low cost computing market. The OLPC is not the only contender in this arena. Let us consider some of the others.
Before Intel kissed and made up with Negroponte by joining the OLPC board, they were developing their own low cost laptop called Classmate at $225 that was running a modified version of Windows or Linux. See this Wikipedia entry.
Yellow Sheep River’s Municator
Why should China rely on American do gooders when they can build their own cheap laptops? Yellow Sheep River has come up with a spec for a $150 Chinese Linux laptop with a 40 GB hard drive. It has Chinese Godson chips that offer similar performance to Pentium III chips thatt were around in the late nineties. This device also plugs into televisions. Read more here.
We don’t know much about this product except what we read on this website:
The “Dream Dragon” computer, being developed as a joint venture by the Jiangsu Menglan Group and China’s Institute of Computing Technology (ICT), is currently set to cost about US$131. It utilizes a line of low cost central processing units (CPUs) named “Loongson” being developed by the ICT and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Like the Classmate and XO-1, it runs on Linux, though it is aimed at low income and rural Chinese students. See: this Speroforum post.
Sinomanic is a Chinese branded laptop that will go on the market for $129 to $392.
Asus 3EPC is yet another Flash memory based Linux laptop that is designed for web surfing. Unlike the other offerings, it has been manufactured for the global mass market, not just developing countries. It costs $199. We want to play with one.
See: Read more.
Let us not forget the humble cellphone. One billion of them were sold last year and China has the biggest mobile phone market on the planet. The cellphone may not be as powerful as a fully featured laptop, but it is still a computer that is capable of accessing the internet, taking photographs, getting directions, listening to music, watching movies, keeping contacts, playing games and editing documents.
Don’t expect to see children from poor villages in Anhui walking around with an Apple Iphone in the next couple of years, but they may have an affordable handset that is just as powerful and even more useful as they use it to carry out a virtual science experiment in Chinese and English. It will probably plug into a big screen or TV and have handwriting recognition or an extra keyboard.
China may have 140 million Internet users, but it’s going to take a few years and plenty of low cost initiatives to make communication technologies accessible to everyone in China. We suspect that prices are going to carry on tumbling while cellphones become even more versatile. Bridging the digital divide is an important step, but it needs to result in better learning opportunities and living conditions.
OLPC Presentation to Google Staff
OLPC News – Independent blog
Cranky Geeks vodcast often takes potshots at the OLPC project
Crossposted on Catshanghai.
Video on the OLPC programme as seen on 60 Minutes.