Hard Times Hit Laptop Program for Poor Kids

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One Laptop per Child – the ambitious U.N.-sponsored program that set out to provide millions of laptops to children around the world – has sliced its workforce in half and is reducing pay for the employees who remain.

“It will be a more efficient and interesting organization going forward,” said Matt Keller, director of Europe, Middle East and Africa for One Laptop per Child, more commonly known as OLPC.

“We’re moving away from capital OLPC to small, lowercase ‘olpc’ and really pushing for the idea of getting as many low-power running laptops to as many kids living in remote parts of the Earth as possible.”

OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, announced the workforce cuts last month on the nonprofit’s website, http://wiki.laptop.org.

“Like many other nonprofits that are facing tough economic times, One Laptop per Child must downsize in order to keep costs in line with fewer financial resources,” Negroponte said in the statement. The reduction brings the number of employees to 32.

The organization’s mission is to provide inexpensive, rugged laptops to children in developing countries. Under its programs, a donor could provide a laptop for $199, or pay $399 to give one laptop and receive the other.

The downsizing has drawn criticism from tech industry observers, who say OLPC has insisted on producing its own laptops, while other new small laptops could serve the same purpose.

“Negroponte blames the economy, but that seems like an especially weak excuse, given just how strongly small, inexpensive mini-laptops (netbooks) are selling these days,” Mike Masnick wrote in a posting on http://Techdirt.com, an 11-year-old blog about the tech industry.

“Clearly, there’s tremendous demand out there for super cheap, small laptops,” Masnick wrote. “The problem is that Negroponte decided from the beginning that his product was only for kids in developing countries, and left a massive market underserved (the rather weak give one, get one program was hardly serving the market).”

Masnick says competitors’ laptops may not have all of the “bells and whistles” of the OLPC that help it survive and operate in rugged environments, but they will still find their way into developing countries, just like cell phones.

“So, in the end,” Masnick wrote, “Negroponte’s original vision may get served, but it will get served by the market and competition, rather than his own grand master plan.”

Contacts: One Laptop per Child, (617) 452-5663, http://laptop.org; http://techdirt.com.