Keep Selling the Cheap Laptop, Supporter Urges

As commercial sales of One Laptop Per Child's XO laptop close Monday, a user tracking the nonprofit effort said continued commercial availability of the laptop could benefit OLPC's nonprofit effort, the XO manufacturer and children using it as a learning tool.

Gabriel Morales, a technology enthusiast in Miami, feels so passionately about distributing the laptop commercially that he has set up a Web site, XOforall.com, to drum up public support for continued commercialization.

After several years of pilot tests and attempts to reduce manufacturing costs, OLPC's XO laptops went on sale Nov. 12 through its Give One Get One program, in which two laptops can be purchased for about US$400, with a user getting one laptop and the other being donated.

Morales said a direct sales model works best for OLPC, as it covers the overhead cost of manufacturing XOs and in-store sales could yield more potential buyers. Bigger distribution will attract developers to XO's "Sugar" open-source Linux interface, which could lead to more educational applications for children to use as learning tools, Morales said.

But it is XO's innovative hardware that will attract users, Morales said.

Using a handcrank, pedal or pull-string, the laptop doesn't rely on an electrical outlet to run, making it useful for situations where power is unreliable or unavailable. The laptop also runs longer than a traditional unit -- up to 21 hours -- thanks to its custom-designed, efficient power-saving features implemented at the hardware and software level, Morales said.

For connectivity, users could take advantage of its mesh-networking features for Internet access and its ruggedness for road use. A mesh network could foster community and be a key tool in recovery efforts during disasters, Morales said.

Afflicted by production delays and rising costs, the XO has jumped from its original estimated price of $100 to $200. Such delays and rising costs would diminish with commercialization, because the manufacturer would be more willing to increase production due to lower risk, Morales said. That should be done without bringing on a situation where "developing countries are denied XO laptops because demand must be met in developed countries," Morales wrote in an entry on OLPCnews.com.

However, XO laptops are not designed to work like commercial laptops, OLPC officials have insisted.

XO batteries are different from the ones in commercial laptops, which can sap up to 40 watts of power depending on usage, said OLPC's Chief Technology Officer Mary Lou Jepsen. The laptop's specially designed lithium-ferro phosphate battery consumes between 2 watts to 8 watts depending on usage, Jepsen said. Batteries in commercial laptops may explode at high temperatures, while XO's batteries can run and recharge in temperatures around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).

OLPC is also designing a cow-powered generator that works by hooking cattle up to a system of belts and pulleys.

As a nonprofit organization trying to help children, OLPC's mission is completely different from mainstream organizations, said Samir Bhavnani, an analyst with NPD Group. "The goal is to get technology in the hands of those that cannot afford it," Bhavnani said. A price drop of a laptop, targeted at normal consumers, won't impact the charter of OLPC, Bhavnani said.

"We're a nonprofit educational organization -- not a laptop retailer," said George Snell, an OLPC spokesman, in an e-mail statement.

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