Intel joins One Laptop Per Child initiative

In an unexpected development, chip giant Intel 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 (AMD).

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 US$175, Intel has been selling its Classmate PC laptop in bulk since March. Classmate currently costs around US$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.

There wasn't a single catalyst that led to the agreement, it was more a case of Intel and OLPC "coming to a collective realization that we'd be better working together than working apart," said Walter Bender, OLPC president, software and content.

"The very first thing is that the agreement broadens our software base to include resources from Intel in the open-source and learning spaces," he added. "We're really getting a broader set of opportunities for children across all platforms."

Under the agreement, Intel and OLPC will look into collaborating on both the technology and educational fronts. Intel will also join the OLPC board. While Intel didn't name its representative on the OLPC board, Bender said it will initially be Swope.

In the short term, Intel will effectively be supporting two different laptop programs -- OLPC and Classmate -- which will sometimes overlap, while retaining some unique capabilities, according to Swope. It will be up to 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 two laptops serve different needs, with the XO laptop more focused on the needs of children who live off the main power grids, Bender said. Over time, he expects to see a family of laptops appear all aimed at schoolchildren and their diverse requirements. Some of the computers will be powered by Intel, some by AMD and some by other companies including Marvell Technology Group Ltd., he added.

The agreement doesn't have anything to do with Intel making chips for the XO laptop, although should the contract to 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, eBay, Google, News Corp., Nortel Networks, Quanta Computer and Red Hat. 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.

Bender said that OLPC is in "very serious conversations" with three more companies, which are all household names, but he wouldn't reveal their identities.

Intel also 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.

OLPC is currently in talks with the governments in 30 countries, Bender said, including Peru. If the project continues to see enough demand for the laptop elsewhere around the globe, it will make the XO laptop available outside the developing world, he added, for instance, to U.S. states.

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