Idea Conference

Cheap-PC Guru Invites All to Copy His Designs

Leader of One Laptop Per Child Hopes Prices Go Even Lower

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NEW YORK ( -- Like all those low-priced laptops that are coming out on the market lately? Thank One Laptop Per Child and its founder Nicholas Negroponte. And if history repeats, prices will go much, much lower.
Nicholas Negroponte speaking at the Advertising Age/Creativity Idea Conference in New York.
Nicholas Negroponte speaking at the Advertising Age/Creativity Idea Conference in New York. Credit: Scott Gries

Mr. Negroponte, at the Advertising Age/Creativity Idea Conference in New York today, said the nonprofit, which has used clever design and mass manufacturing to create inexpensive laptops to distribute to children around the world, has often forced the hand of for-profit laptop makers to lower their prices. He recalled an occasion in Turkey when the mayor of Istanbul was making a big OLPC purchase and a large laptop maker -- whom he wouldn't name -- undercut him in price.

"There are lots of laptops on the market for $350. Well, you can thank me. Now that they're doing this, I am saying to myself, 'Wow, they copied much faster than I anticipated. So let me leak the next model.'"

Multipurpose model
That's exactly what the nonprofit has been doing with its next-generation laptop, which has a new design: Rather than a laptop that can double as an electronic book, it's now an e-book that morphs into a laptop.

Mr. Negroponte quipped that OLPC requires people who see the new designs to sign a disclosure agreement. "We want you to tell everyone what you have seen," he said.

OLPC's mission is to make low-cost laptops that governments around the world can buy to distribute to children. Governments could buy the first model, when it launched in 2007, for $188 a piece. But now Mr. Negroponte said the new designs he's intentionally trying to leak could end up costing as little as $75. While the computer manufacturers might not appreciate the pricing pressure, he doesn't seem to care. "Our business as a nonprofit is to get the word out," he said.

Basic engineering
He also spoke of the materials used in production and how easy it is to fix the laptops. He likened the interior design of the machines to a 1960s Volkswagen, when it was pretty clear what a person might need to do to perform basic maintenance. Today's cars, he said, could never be maintained by the average person. With OLPC laptops, he added, "a 12-year-old kid can do about 95% of the maintenance."

That's important because many of the laptops are distributed in parts of the world where there are little technological-maintenance resources or know-how. In one example, if the screen display goes dark, the LED light can be easily switched out for about 50 cents.

"The industry doesn't want you to do that," he said.
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