Business, Finance & Economics

One Laptop Project faces economic reality

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Students using the OLPC in Papua New Guinea (image: One Laptop per Child/Flickr)

The aim of the One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC project, has always been pretty simple:  put a laptop in the hands of every child in the developing world.  When it began four years ago, OLPC wanted to get the cost of its laptop down to $100 each, but the price tag remains closer to $200.   And recent estimates have put the cost of owning and maintaining an OLPC laptop as high as $2500 over the lifetime of the machine.  As if that weren’t bad enough for the OLPC program, the new year has brought some more bad news. 

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The One Laptop Per Child project recently announced that it was “refocusing” its mission.  OLPC has cut its staff by half, and salaries for those remaining have been slashed.  On top of that, corporate sponsors in the tech industry have also pulled their funding.  Chuck Kane is OLPC’s President.  He says the global economic downturn is hitting his organization hard.

"The economic climate is not only impacting for-profit, but non-for-profit companies, and a lot of our goals I think have not been reached because of the unfortunate economic climate."

In addition, Kane says, OLPC’s recent promotion to get buyers in Europe to sponsor laptops for the developing world didn’t go nearly as well as the organization had hoped.  Many OLPC observers say this organizational reduction is more than just a refocusing.

"You can’t lose half your staff and consider it to be a refocusing.  That’s more of a gutting and a serious retrenchment," says Wayan Vota, founder of OLPCnews.com, an independent website that covers the OLPC project.  He now works for another nonprofit trying to get computers into the developing world.  Vota says OLPC is finally coming to grips with a realization that he came to some time ago.

"I think the original goal of one laptop per every child in the developing world was very much a fanciful goal that they had hoped to achieve some day but was not realistic anytime in the near future," adds Vota.

Price has always been an issue for OLPC.  When the effort started in 2005, it was dubbed “The $100 laptop project.”  At the time, even the cheapest of laptops cost around $1000.  

Walter Bender, the former President of OLPC, gives credit to the organization for getting the price of its laptop down to around $200 per unit.  "I think they’ve done a brilliant job, but one could argue that that aspect of the mission is, to quote Mr. Bush, 'mission accomplished.'" 

In other words, getting the price of a laptop down is one thing, but it’s another to convince governments to buy them in mass quantity and redesign their national curriculum around them.  But OLPC’s current President, Chuck Kane, remains optimistic about the project’s future.  He points to the Give One, Get One promotion the OLPC ran in North America.  Buyers were given the chance to buy two laptops – one for themselves and another for someone in a developing world.  Kane says that the success of Give One Get One can get governments on board with the project.

"What it does is it triggers an understanding and an acceptance to how impactful the computer can be.  And what we see in Stage 2 usually is a government then stepping up and implementing and paying for the computers on a roll out."

Kane adds that OLPC expects to ship its millionth computer sometime next month, and work on the next generation of its laptop is also continuing.

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