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One Laptop Per Child

Today the dream of a few people to put laptops into the hands of millions of children around the world will make one huge stride toward reality. The Cambridge-based non-profit "One Laptop Per Child" is announcing that it's kick-starting the mass production of millions of the machines.

The plan is to starting distributing them this fall to countries such as Libya, Uruguay and Pakistan. That story now from WBUR's Business and Technology Reporter Curt Nickisch.TEXT OF STORY

CURT NICKISCH: In a high-rise office building in Cambridge, a dozen volunteer programmers wearing t-shirts and flip-flops are debugging software under the buzz of fluorescent lights.

SOUND OF OFFICE AND PROGRAMMERS TALKING: "Then I rebooted the kernel just for this reason. I now have all the input devices but I can't move the mouse anymore."

NICKISCH: Around them, whiteboard walls are splattered with magic marker flowcharts. The tenth-floor windows look out at the lofty Boston skyline, but some are taped with photos of children in squat African villages. The stark contrast is a reminder of the far-flung developing world these computer developers are trying to change.

NICHOLAS NEGROPONTE: It's such a simple idea.

NICKISCH: That's Nicholas Negroponte. Before starting the non-profit "One Laptop Per Child," he ran the Media Lab at MIT, just around the corner from here. That's where the idea was born to create a low-cost laptop for the world's poorest children.

NEGROPONTE: On the surface, laptops, those are for office workers in rich countries. So when you say One Laptop Per Child, at first blush it sounds almost ludicrous. It's like a Mercedes-Benz for every pedestrian. It doesn't sound right.

NICKISCH: But the laptop nicknamed the XO doesn't look like your office laptop either. To start with it's cute. Two-tone - white and a kind of a bright green. Think Kermit. The XO's about the size of an etch-a-sketch and about as light. While the screen pops up like a regular laptop, it swivels and has wireless antennas that flip up like little frog ears.

But this laptop is no toy. Negroponte says it's designed to change the world.

NEGROPONTE: If we could get kids around the world to grow up in more communication with one another, as well as having the opportunity to learn, this is going to be a far better place than it is now.

NICKISCH: That's a dream shared by Chief of Content Walter Bender. He says One Laptop Per Child designed the XO for harsh conditions — rugged enough for children to carry through deserts and rainforests.

WALTER BENDER: Why every laptop doesn't have a handle? I mean, come on! I mean that's just common sense.

NICKISCH: More common sense — unlike other laptops, the screen can be read in bright sunlight. It's low power though, and in remote areas without electricity, the battery can be recharged with a foot pedal. No customer service out there either — so the XO has been simplified so kids can fix them. Bender says the team tried to make each part both innovative... and inexpensive.

BENDER: We agonized over whether we should include a camera. Because a camera is going to increase the price of a laptop by two dollars and nineteen cents I think at the time we were making the decision. But it turns out that's probably two dollars and nineteen cents well invested, and we decided to add the camera regardless.

NICKISCH: One way the project is keeping the costs down is by using free software. There's an encyclopedia and a drawing program — one to compose and play music. Kids will be able to work together because the laptops link to each other wirelessly. If one XO is connected to the Internet, others can daisy-chain off that connection miles away. Bender says that's going to unleash some unbelievable creativity.

BENDER: Photojournalists! Because five or ten million kids out there who never had access to anything, suddenly are going to have access to a video camera connected to the internet. And they're going to be blogging, posting to YouTube. We're going to see a side of the world we've never seen before.

NICKISCH: In all, the XO costs one hundred seventy five dollars. The hope is for that price to drop as more countries sign on. Getting the first commitments has been up to the head of One Laptop Per Child, Nicholas Negroponte. He traveled nine days out of ten this past year, pleading his cause to leaders such as Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi. He tells them the future of their countries will be richer if they buy these machines in bulk now.

NEGROPONTE: Kids, after the fourth, fifth, if they're lucky sixth grade, drop out of school in developing countries. The reason they've dropped out of school is because it's boring. It's truly boring. I think what you're gonna find: kids staying in school and kids going to school, because school will suddenly become fun.

NICKISCH: And Negroponte points to pilot projects that are testing the XO in schools around the globe.

SOUND OF BRAZIL CLASSROOM

NICKISCH: In this classroom in Brazil, six-year-olds are taking pictures of each other with the computer's camera.

SOUND OF SCHOOLGIRL TALKING

NICKISCH: "Do I have my finger on the little ball?" asks one girl. She wants to click the onboard mouse to take a picture. At another school in Thailand, kids are writing songs together.

SOUND OF THAI CLASSROOM

NICKISCH: From Nigeria is Ayodele Kusamotu. He's working for the government there, planning the distribution of laptops. He's seen them being tested at one school. Kusamotu says the children are captivated by the XO:

KUSAMOTU: That just don't take it at school, they take it home every day. And their family can use it. And you have a bunch of people growing up saying Google as their first words. So they can use it to check farm prices, use it to do things in the community, use it to do their homework.

NICKISCH: Despite Kusamotu's enthusiasm, many still question whether even low-cost laptops are worth it in countries where children have little medicine or food. Among the critics: Microsoft CEO Bill Gates. He started a foundation that's donating billions to fight disease around the globe.

BILL GATES: If you look at the order of priorities, there's large parts of the world where the health issues really trump everything else. You don't have electricity, you don't have literacy. Computing is not at the top of the list that create these inequities.

NICKISCH: But others say the XO could reduce those inequities.

SOUND OF OUTDOOR PLAZA

NICKISCH: Josh Bernoff works at Forrester Research in Kendall Square, just down the street from One Laptop Per Child. Just look around, he says, at all the tech businesses and jobs here — everything computers have done for the US. Then, Bernoff says, try to imagine the promise low-cost laptops hold for the developing world.

JOSH BERNOFF: It's a mind boggling thing, and I think these kids who may identify much more with what's happening in their village than what's happening half a world a way, maybe now they get a bigger perspective on where they fit into things. They can develop friendships, relationships, even ideas about how business works in other places in the world.

NICKISCH: That's Bernoff's heart. His head sees major logistical obstacles for the project.

BERNOFF: This is a huge experiment. You know if we put a half a million or a million computers into a country like Libya or Thailand or Brazil, what will happen? We'll have to wait and find out.

NICKISCH: Maybe not that long anymore. One Laptop Per Child says it's close to having three million orders for the machines. The green and white laptops designed to reduce poverty and change the developing world are scheduled to start rolling off the assembly line in October.

For WBUR, I'm Curt Nickisch.

This program aired on July 23, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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