OLPC Proposes Savvy Sales Ploy

TheOne Laptop Per Child organization, which seeks to bridge the digital divide for poor children in developing economies, is kicking off a deal that allows charity-minded consumers to buy two laptops — one for a child in a developing country and one for the buyer to keep.

The two-laptops promotion, with a limited-time price of US$399, will kick off Nov. 12. The computers are XO laptops, manufactured byQuanta Computer of Taiwan, running onRed Hat’s Fedora Linux distribution.

Price Has Risen

When first floated by MIT Media Labs’ Nicholas Negroponte at the World Economic Forum in 2005, the One Laptop Per Child idea seemed ambitious if not impractical: a laptop rugged enough to withstand varied environments, with a screen that could be read in bright sunlight, with wireless capability, and with power requirements that would not strain families’ resources — all for around $100.

The target price has crept up recently, but $100 remains the long-term goal. The price under the “Give 1, Get 1” promotion is $200, which includes shipping, according to the OLPC Web site.

The project’s success so far is an indication of the power of the open source community to balance complexity with affordability — precisely why the organization focused on the Linux OS and sought technology partners like Red Hat.

“We were interested in Linux not because of it being free like beer, but free as in a global community project able to address issues,” Walter Bender, OLPC president of software and content, told LinuxInsider.

“We thought Red Hat was a good choice for a number of reasons — one of them being its team dedicated to working upstream, tackling the less glamorous things like file systems and device drivers, and being meticulous about what they do,” Bender continued.

Learning From the Students

Reactions to OLPC laptops already in place in schools around the globe are providing some lessons for the organization, according to Bender. The biggest surprise for him has not been the children’s enthusiasm. “I expected them to take to this. What has surprised me is the way the teachers get it. They’re wholly engaged.”

When first approached, Red Hat engineers knew reaching the OLPC goals might be more like a trek across the Sahara than a walk in the park, but they welcomed opportunities to think hard and fast.

“There were a huge number of challenges that had to be overcome,” Chris Blizzard, manager of the OLPC project for Red Hat, told LinuxInsider.The problems ranged from issues of memory and storage to processors. The real challenge, however, came with machine support.

The reality is that laptops earmarked for villages and rural areas would not be leaning on any tech support systems any time soon.

“There are no 1-800 numbers to call,” Blizzard noted.

Linux With Sugar

The Linux OS in use is a system based on code available in Fedora 7, Blizzard said.

“It’s a very small package set designed to create a solid platform for developers to build on. On top of that, we layer the Sugar interface that’s been under development by Red Hat and One Laptop per Child over the last couple of years,” he said.

Sugar is a graphical user interface designed especially for children with little computing experience.

“We’ve been able to develop an operating system that’s actually designed to be used in the specific environment in which it is to be deployed,” said Blizzard — “that is, in the developing world, for kids, for people that don’t necessarily have access to technical talent, in places without reliable power.”

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