Intel joins One Laptop Per Child initiative

In an unexpected development, chip giant Intel Corp. has joined the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. The nonprofit project aims to equip children in developing countries with specially designed low-cost notebooks powered by chips from Intel's rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

Previously, Intel's efforts in the education market appeared at odds with those of OLPC. While OLPC expects to finally begin delayed volume shipments of its XO laptop in September, priced at $175, Intel has been selling its Classmate PC laptop in bulk since March. Classmate currently costs around $225, but Intel hopes to lower that price to $200 by year end.

Intel has been selling Classmate primarily in Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and Pakistan, while OLPC has beta copies of its laptops in use by schoolchildren in Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Thailand and Uruguay. The governments of those seven nations have pledged to purchase the XO laptops in bulk when volume shipments begin.

Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC, has previously said publicly that Intel's Classmate efforts have been adversely affecting his project, given the well-funded nature of the chip maker's initiative.

Intel and OLPC had engaged in conversations on and off for a while, but nailed down an agreement to work together in the last month, according to Will Swope, vice president and director of corporate affairs at Intel.

"Our role here is one of how do we have the biggest impact on education and on children around the world?" he said. The chip maker has spent over $1 billion in education initiatives since its founding and over the last five to six years has been investing annually around $100 million on such projects. "How could we make that more impactful and reach more children?" Swope asked. The answer, he said, was to join OLPC.

"Collaboration with Intel means that the maximum number of laptops will reach children," Negroponte agreed in a statement.

Under the agreement, Intel and OLPC will look into collaborating on both the technology and educational fronts. Intel will also join the OLPC board.

In the short term, Intel will effectively be supporting two different laptop programs -- OLPC and Classmate -- which will sometime overlap, while retaining some unique capabilities, according to Swope. It will be up to the governments to decide which machine they want to buy for their schools. Over time, the two lines will become "more complementary," and Intel and OLPC will partner a lot more, he said. As yet, it's too early for Intel to provide specifics on that area of the relationship between the two organizations and product lines, Swope added.

The agreement doesn't have anything to do with Intel making chips for the XO laptop, although should the contract provide silicon for the device be up for grabs, Intel would naturally be interested, Swope said. AMD, an OLPC board member, is supplying its Geode processors for the machine.

"We're definitely excited by this change of heart [by Intel] and welcome their contributions," said Rebecca Gonzales, director of marketing communications at AMD. "We're happy to have them as part of the group." AMD has long said that the technology divide that OLPC is trying to bridge with its XO laptop can't be achieved by a single entity, Gonzales added.

AMD has worked closely with the other corporate members of OLPC, which include Brightstar Corp., eBay Inc., Google Inc., News Corp., Nortel Networks Corp., Quanta Computer Inc. and Red Hat Inc. The vendor is looking forward to Intel joining the board and providing a fresh take on the project, Gonzales said.

Intel isn't disclosing all the conditions of its membership in OLPC. Swope noted that a number of other IT vendors are lining up to join the project under the same terms as Intel, and OLPC doesn't want to disclose those specifics until those other companies have also become members.

Also, Intel isn't revealing how much it's investing in OLPC and that figure may remain undisclosed, Swope said.

OLPC has struggled to bring its ambitious project to fruition.

Initially, the organization had hoped to begin selling its laptop at $100, but that's proved impossible given spiraling production costs. The laptop is being manufactured by Quanta, with the Taiwanese vendor hoping to produce 1 million computers by year end. Negroponte continues to vacillate on whether OLPC will also make the notebooks available outside of the developing world, for instance, in the U.S.

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