OLPC to focus on large-scale deployments of XO laptops

Nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child is shying away from small deployments of XO laptops to focus on large-scale deployments as it restructures to cope with the recession.

OLPC is not selling laptops individually anymore and will focus on large-scale deployments that could top millions of laptops in countries, OLPC founder and Chairman Nicholas Negroponte said in an e-mail interview. The nonprofit is breaking up its operations based on regions for a targeted focus on those deployments.

The change was partly triggered by a drop-off in interest in the group's Give 1 Get 1 program, which was a big source of funding for OLPC. Under the program, a consumer could donate US$400 to OLPC for two laptops, with one of them delivered to a child in a developing nation.

This G1G1 program was first launched in 2007 and met with instant success, raking in close to $35 million in sales. However, sales from the consequent G1G1 program, which lasted from 2008 through earlier this year, dropped tremendously to around $3.5 million.

"[This] year G1G1 was less than 10 percent of the previous year. Not good; perhaps in keeping with the economic times," Negroponte said.

Earlier this month, a program for donors to employ 100 or more XO laptops for small-scale deployments, called "Change the World," was also discontinued by OLPC. The program was defined as a "special program that allows donors to choose the country where the laptops go."

Removal of that program rattled observers, who said that OLPC needed to focus on small deployments as it provided a blueprint for larger laptop deployments.

However, the program "yielded very little, so our focus for now is national rollouts, with special emphasis on Sub-Sahara, Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan," Negroponte said. The company has already spun off or is in the process of spinning off operations in other regions and countries into separate organizations with their own staff.

The organization has spun off operations in Latin America into a separate unit called OLPC Americas, which already has close to 250 people working in Uruguay and Peru to handle logistics, telecommunications, technical support and teacher preparation. OLPC is in the process of spinning off operations in India, China and Oceania.

OLPC is also trying to redefine its operation in Europe, which already has its own board and finances, Negroponte said. It wasn't immediately clear if it would be spun off into a separate organization.

The restructuring comes after OLPC in early January cut half of its staff to cope with tough economic times. The nonprofit cut 32 employees, while remaining employees took salary cuts.

Designed for use by children in developing countries, the XO laptop has been praised for its innovative hardware features and environmentally friendly design. In the vein of this current laptop, the next-generation XO-2 laptop will be engineered as an educational tool for kids in primary schools, Negroponte said. Due for release in 18 months, it will include software and hardware that differentiate it from traditional netbooks, Negroponte said.

OLPC has said the XO-2 will include a software-based, touch-sensitive keyboard and two touch-screen displays. The new laptop may also likely carry current XO laptop features, including the ability to run on solar power, foot pedal or pull-string, making it useful for situations where power is unreliable or unavailable.

"We feel strongly about the laptop being child- and learning-centric, collaborative, rugged, low-cost, low-power, sunlight-readable," Negroponte said. OLPC shipped 1 million XO laptop units over the past 12 months in 31 countries. The organization faces a backlog of more than 500,000 XO laptop orders, Negroponte said.

The company has already off-loaded to the open-source community the development of Sugar, the Linux-based user interface for the XO laptop.

Beyond deployment and engineering, advocacy will be another area of top focus for OLPC, Negroponte said. OLPC has an annual budget of $10 million from various funding sources.

"Advocacy and adoption have a great deal to do with the European Union, United Nations and Washington. All three are being 'worked' in various ways," Negroponte said. OLPC has an employee dedicated to acquiring funds from different government and private sources.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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