Intel launched its Classmate PC late last year - a year after the prototype of the non-profit One Laptop Per Child programme was unveiled in Tunisia. The formidable obstacles to the practicality of both projects lie in cost, power, connectivity and training in countries where all four are in short supply.
The attraction of the idea is clear: it combines the potential of tapping into a vast dormant market of young technology users, while serving a worthy cause in putting IT at the service of schoolchildren in poorer countries.
Intel has launched pilot projects for the Classmate PC in Brazil, Mexico, India and Nigeria, and hopes to expand this to 30 countries by the end of 2007. Teachers use Intel's interactive education portal Skoool, currently available in five languages, to access lessons and teaching resources.
The OLPC initiative was launched by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte and then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum two years ago, with the goal of producing a $100 laptop. Sponsoring the OLPC are Google, eBay, News Corporation, Brightstar and several other leading US technology and software providers. So far more than a dozen countries in three continents, including two US states, have signed up to the programme, although the price for the initial model has moved up to around £140. Intel believes that will come in closer to $200.
Intel pointedly did not join in the OLPC initiative and launched its own for-profit Classmate PC which comes in at a much more expensive $400. Like OLPC, Intel's model combines low-power consumption, wireless connectivity and minimal production cost. While OLPC uses open source software, the Classmate can use either Linux or Microsoft Windows.
Why did Intel not join OLPC? For one OLPC uses AMD's Geode processor, rather than an Intel processor. Secondly, Intel believes that the headline price of OLPC's laptop does not cover the cost of a "fully functioning" PC. Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, agrees, and not coincidentally Microsoft software will be the mainstay of Classmate. Intel wants the price to come down to $300 as volume sales increase and local producers assemble them.
As John Davies, Intel's vice-president, explained to World Business, the vision for Classmate is part of a gradual, long-term strategy with a big prize. "In 10 to 20 years hopefully everyone will have one. There are 1.2 billion primary and secondary school kids with 50 million PCs between them, or one per 22 kids. In the West or Japan that is 5 to 7 kids per PC but in some countries it is 50 per PC or none at all. Today it is very much the laboratory approach, moving at first to PCs in classrooms with Smartboards. Rather than people spending monstrous sums on investment, we prefer testing so that countries can see what works and can then make intelligent decisions about how they go forward."
Not everyone is convinced about the motives of either project, seeing an industry gambit to sell PCs to the developing world as the rich country market becomes saturated, all under the guise of altruism. Some African and Indian government officials have commented that OLPC is an attempt to exploit poor country governments and divert funds from more cost-effective basic needs investment such as building schools and libraries. With GDP per capita in India at $705 and Ghana at $512, for example, it is difficult to see how governments in those countries will be able to afford to pay for either low-cost laptop to reach more than a small minority of their countries' schoolchildren.
Davies says: "There are some basic needs that must be met. A lot of money in emerging countries goes into books and the curricula side. When you look around the world a tremendous amount is spent on old people and healthcare. Lots of countries are asking themselves how they will equip themselves for the 21st century. The same dynamic of educational change is taking place everywhere, and the need is more pressing in emerging markets where often more than half the population is under 25."
And with growth in India at 7% per annum, the prospect in the longer term of millions of Indian schoolchildren having access to low-cost PCs, in a nation already known for its advanced IT skills, starts to sound more plausible. But that is still a long way off. For now Intel is funding pilots, training teachers (with a goal of training 10 million teachers in five years) and working with local PC manufacturers to assemble the technology.
"Education software is provided as a kind of loss leader, as it makes the market for Intel products grow," Davies says.
For example, in the Ghana education pilot Intel is partnering with Microsoft and local IT companies Ghana Telecom and 1 Advance to bring PC access to 100,000 citizens, with funding for a school pilot from a local bank.
Davies says: "We want local companies to build the laptops. Obviously we would be happy to see the names of [Intel brands] Dell or HP on it, but if you build it locally you create some jobs, and countries like that as it creates an ecosystem and infrastructure."
The danger of arbitrage - people selling on the product or stealing it from schools - is overcome by a mechanism that means the Classmate PC closes down if it is not returned in a few days.
Classmate has a four-hour battery and future generations will be longer, Davies says: "It's fine for most of the intermittent two to three-second power losses we see in India, for example. Our Community PC [for teachers] is a desktop PC and that has a car battery back-up that lasts for days."
Broadband access is through the new wide area wireless technology, WiMax, which provides broadband connections over long distances. Intel sees WiMax as a technology of choice in countries that have not invested heavily in broadband cable, DSL and 3G, i.e. countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Intel has been working on the Classmate for 18 months. Davies admits that the challenge from OLPC has spurred its development. "Negroponte threw the gauntlet down to the industry with an aggressive price point target. It makes you work harder to deliver it."
The challenge for both Intel and OLPC will be whether by providing their PCs to a few children in emerging markets, they fail to achieve the fundamental goal of bridging the digital divide between the rich and poor world. Instead, it is possible they will create a new digital divide - between the digital haves and the digital have-nots in countries that previously were overwhelmingly among the have-nots.
Davies is bullishly optimistic. "[Countries] have to ask themselves whether they will survive using natural resources, brawn or their brains and intelligence. I have talked to 30 government ministers and I have yet to find one who is not committed to looking at new ways to fund and deliver education."
Interview by Joe Gill