'One laptop per child' initiative suffers severe setback

Tuesday, 13 January, 2009

TelcomTV’s Martyn Warwick reported that the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation has taken another body blow. As the novelty of the initiative has worn off and other, newer and cheaper no-frills laptops have become available, donations raised from the OLPC's 'Give One, Get One' program — launched in 2007 to promote sales of the device — have dwindled alarmingly. Revenues are falling fast and half the OLPC's staff have been laid off.

The OLPC is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachussetts and the organisation's laudable aim is to provide free 'basic' laptop computers to deprived children in poor countries. However, as MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte, the OLPC's founder, admits, "We're no longer the newest story in town and the economic downturn has hit us, just like it's hit everybody else".

And the OLPC has certainly taken a mighty thump. Figures released late last week show that over the Christmas 2008 and New Year 2009 holiday period only 12,600 laptops were shipped and that generated a mere US$2.5 million — an astonishing 93% decline on the same period in 2007/08.

Things are now so bad at the OLPC that 32 staff have been made redundant, whilst the 32 that remain in work have taken pay cuts. The OPLC's $12 million annual budget has also been slashed by more than 50%. In a blog announcing the bad news, Negroponte writes, "They [the financial results] have been a real shocker. We are cutting cost and reducing our budget to run at about $5 million. But, we're going to keep going and we're going to expand."

Negroponte also announced that the OLPC is to spin off its Latin American operations and is to abandon any further work on developing the operating system software for the OLPC computers. Instead, he says, the Foundation will concentrate on the distribution of the devices in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan. Remaining resources will be devoted to the creation of a second generation of inexpensive laptops.

Analysts and insiders were quick to critique Negroponte's revised plans. For example, Ivan Krstic, a former director of software security at the Foundation, says that as so many new laptops, while not as robust or energy efficient as the OLPC machines, are considerably cheaper, any emphasis on the development of a new generation would be futile and put the organisation in direct competition with the likes of Acer, Dell, HP and many other multinational behemoths. "At this point it's completely the wrong thing to focus on", he says.



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