Give One, Get One

Walter Bender, the software chief of One Laptop Per Child—the much-ballyhooed, as-yet unproven project to deliver millions of cheap computers to kids in developing countries—recalls a recent conversation he had with a woman at the World Bank. Now that the project is finally rolling out its innovative XO devices (which are manufactured not at the promised $100 price point but $188, a discrepancy I'll get to later), he was trying to entice the bank to support the project. In my country, the woman said, kids learn outdoors and there's little shade. Bender told her that the XO screen is great in bright sunlight. But access to books is central to learning in my region. Bender said that's why the XO easily transforms into an e-book reader. There's little energy in my country. That's why we made it solar powered, replied Bender. This went on for a few more questions, with Bender parrying every thrust until the woman had no more objections. But the meeting ended with no commitment on her part. "It's like they're looking for reasons to say no," he says.

This is a season of joy and consternation at the OLPC program. The nonprofit project has nearly completed the three-pound green-and-white plastic XO, and it is a design and tech triumph. You can feel the excitement at the company's Cambridge, Mass., headquarters, where tables are stacked with working prototypes (and other units are cooking in 140-degree ovens to simulate conditions in the Nigerian desert). I've been playing with the laptop for a couple of days, and this is no hand-me-down for poor kids in struggling countries. It's cool enough to impress the most tech-sated American teenager, as well as a genuine advance toward a mean, lean machine to run Web-based applications. The 7.5-inch screen is indeed bright in sunlight, and the software suite is impressive. Unlike my iPhone, it can run Flash video. Its Wi-Fi connectivity finds more hotspots than your average Windows laptop can hope to locate. And OLPC's drop tests show that the device can absorb a fall more gracefully than a Panasonic Toughbook.

On the other hand, big goals have not been met. I'm not talking about the price—rolling out laptops for under $200 is pretty impressive, and costs will only come down with scale. The problem is getting someone to pay for them. When I spoke to OLPC's chairman, Nicholas Negroponte, last January, he estimated that there would be a million laptops in the field by October. Now that's the month when assembly lines begin churning out XOs, and Negroponte is hoping to ship 260,000 by the end of the year. Even that number is contingent on someone's actually buying the laptops, an achievement proving more difficult than debugging the software system. Still, he's optimistic. "It's like triggering an avalanche," he says. "We just need a few pieces of snow to get it started."

Negroponte admits to naiveté in pursuing his plan to have developing countries themselves buy the ultra-low-cost laptops. "I had a handshake agreement with the leaders of three countries—Thailand, Nigeria and Brazil—all agreeing to buy a million laptops," he says. "That got it going. But between a handshake and a closed deal is a world of difference. Everybody has a pit in their stomach when it comes to going first."

To get the snow tum- bling, Negroponte is making "a very major change" to the business plan. Beginning this week, the Web site is accepting $200 donations to buy a laptop for a child. (Negroponte says the first ones will probably go to Peru.) And for two weeks beginning Nov. 12, benefactors can get one of the little devils for themselves. This "Give 1 Get 1" option allows you to purchase a laptop for $399, a price that includes a second XO to be delivered to a kid who may use it to do something great. (You also get a tax deduction for the donation.) "Almost every day someone asks, 'How can I get one?' " says Bender. "This gives people that opportunity, as well as a chance to get involved."

The fact that this thing actually exists could make a big difference. Eventually the XO may even reach that long-promised price point. "I still call it the $100 laptop," Negroponte says. "We're committed that this is the price it's going to be in 18 months, maybe 20." He'd better check first with his colleagues. OLPC's chief technology officer, Mary Lou Jepson, told me, "I want to go for a $50 laptop for 2009!" Maybe that would start the avalanche.