Negroponte's "$100 Laptop" Blowback: Asustek's Eee PC

   
   
   
   
   
olpc $100 laptop

Back when he first introduced his grand dream to the world - improving education through Constructionism, personified in a laptop for every child to learn and play with - Nicholas Negroponte picked an amazing marketing meme to express his dream's affordability: "$100 laptop".

In doing so, Negroponte subverted his original idea in the minds of many. Gone was an educational tool for children. In its place was the idea of an adult computer for $100. So while the One Laptop Per Child team was focused on a primary school student-centric design, everyone else was thinking about teenagers and adults using low cost computers.

This second, more mainstream idea is now coming back around to One Laptop Per Child in the form of competition from Intel. First there was the Classmate PC, which is a quick OLPC catch-up computer that sacrifices much to make a sub-$300 price point but at least pays lip service to Dr. Negroponte's original education idea, even as the OLPC pot called the Intel kettle black.

Now there is the ASUS Eee PC and it doesn't even pretend to be a pure education play. Oh yes, it does borrow heavily from OLPC with its tagline of "Easy to Learn, Work and Play" but do not be fooled. This is not a computer for children. This is One Low-Cost Laptop For Everyone.

With such a broad target, there are going to be instant winners and losers. The first winners will be anyone who wants a low-cost computer and can afford the $200-300 price point. This includes students and adults in the developing world who are not part of OLPC's target market of young children and might find the Sugar UI to be childish anyway. They are now going to be seen as a viable market, one even giants like Intel should focus research, development, and production resources to serve.

The near-term loser will be One Laptop Per Child. The fixation on price, on a "$100 laptop" has just blown back into their project. Now they not only have to prove that their revolution in computing will educate children, they have to prove that the risks inherent in a Constructionist-based OLPC XO education far exceed the evolutionary benefits of a standard laptop made affordable.

This is where controlled pilots, objective testing, and a defined implementation plan could be differentiators, reasons to trust in the original one laptop per child idea generator, Nicholas Negroponte, with the future of their children. And OLPC will need more than trust, as not even Presidental love equals laptop purchases, as Brazil will show this summer.

President Luiz Lula olpc
Brazil's President Luiz Lula ♥ OLPC

There, even though Brazil's President Luiz Lula loves OLPC, Colin Brayton reports that:

The federal government plans to open an international competition, in the second half of 2007, for the purchase of 150,000 low-cost portable computers to be distributed to students at public schools.

"The idea is that children should have laptops by March of 2008," said Cezar Alvarez, special adviser to the president and coordinator of Digital Inclusion Programs, during the 51st Telebrasil Conference in Costa do SauĂ­pe, Bahia.

Expect there to be a few entrants, price-focused and hard-nosed, going after that 150,000 unit initial order. Entrants that took the original OLPC mission at its word: "we would also be delighted if someone built something better, and at a lower price."

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25 Comments

Can anyone tell me what is revolutionary about the Asus notebook, except the price? The prices maybe shows, that up to now, we have been ripped of by notebook suppliers?

The OLPC is not just cheap, but has:

- a revolutionary dual screen mode

- innovative power-saving and recharging features

- an intuitive user interface

- a rugged design

Now that OLPC has paved the way, everybody seems to come out with a cheapish laptop, trying to imitate OLPC.

Wayan, that's not necessarily blowback, that could be success. From the very beginning OLPC wanted to motivate private companies to create PCs that meets the educational needs of kids in developing countries. They created their own laptop because a viable simply hadn't existed before. If Intel's Eee does meet the needs of kids in developing countries, OLPC and Mr. Negroponte will have succeeded.

A social entrepreneur is successful when his services are no longer needed.

I've been talking informally with a lot of people involved in education here. The consensus is that laptops (or computers) for high school make a lot more sense than elementary schooling through a computer, at least in conventional schooling terms. It appears to be more "saleable" as an idea, too (if you allow the neologism).

You may want to debate the consensus, and you may even agree with Prof. Negroponte's assessment that education needs to be changed completely around constructivism. But the actual stakeholders, currently working, dealing with and probably taking decisions about education, apparently prefer something less revolutionary and more in line with current practices.

Whatever the virtues of the OLPC computer, it has been made for primary schoolchildren, and it's based on a very rigid set of premises. Products like Intel's Classmate, and this Asus Eee PC (Eeyore's computer of choice? What a silly name...) are more easily understood as "real computers" for high schoolers. From the perspective of educational officials, the revolutionary technologies behind OLPC computers are completely irrelevant unless the actual tool fits their programs, and it looks like something like Eee PC does this better.

And Will, if OLPC is an educational project, and its original mission was to spread constructivism, how does its failure become a success? If and when something like the Eee PC spreads through secondary classrooms in the Third World, it won't be bringing no constructivism with it.

Will,

I agree that this would be success if Negroponte's goal is low-cost computing, but his goal was a revolution in education. With the Asustek there will not be a education revolution only low-cost computer proliferation. I'll take that as an OLPC success, but not as success of the OLPC mission.

Last March at CeBIT, I filmed an early prototype of this cheap Asus education laptop at http://cebitvideo.com/?p=64

Intel is not at all planning to mass produce cheap laptops. According Intel spokeswoman Agnes Kwan, "the target is 100,000 laptops by December. And Pakistan has ordered 700,000 for 2009"

100 thousand Classmate PCs by the end of the year is far from OLPC's target of over 1 million by year end and at a rate of 400 thousand laptops per month. This just confirms that all Intel is after, is to sign small deals with OLPC-target countries for just a few thousands to tens of thousands max laptops for each countries. Intel knowingly having 200$ or more loss on each laptop, but since it's only planned to build max 100 thousand laptops, this loss doesn't hurt a gian like Intel even a bit.

Asus Eek is a great move from Asus, to build laptops with flash memory instead of HDD. But still this Eek is nothing different than the Classmate still, thus nothing different than a small business laptop.

You won't get the Eek for 200$ in developped countries, since Microsoft doesn't sell Windows XP for 3$ to anyone else than developping countries. And don't count on Intel and Asus to promote any Linux OS in developped countries.

Also this Eek has worse screen, worse battery life, worse Wi-Fi, no DCON, still runs on hot and expensive processor requiring a fan to cool down. Basically this just looks like a Classmate PC manufactured by Asus and with a little more stylish design than Intel's first Classmate PC rushed out design.

That now more low cost computers turn up on the market (and there will be more) is a partial success of OLPC even if it is competition for their own hardware. The success is only partial because OLPC has not yet succeeded in crating a laptop market for primary schoolers and has not yet established constructionism in education. On the other hand the new competition will also put Quanta under increased pressure to lower their limit of orders as a condition to start production. They sure want to secure themselves a large piece of that new market. It might well be that Quanta feel forced to also introduce their own low cost laptop for adults and high schoolers and herewith undermine the constructionism of OLPC.

Now the OLPC project needs to move its main effort from hardware and software to education meaning content, curricula, pilot projects, implementation, teacher training etc.. In order to benefit from this partial success OLPC needs to quickly adapt their operating system and applications to all relevant hardware like Classmate and Asus Eee and publically present it. Also in their communication OLPC has to exclusively emphasize their educational method no matter on what hardware. In order to convince the decision makers OLPC needs now more than ever proof of success of constructionism using computers possibly with different kinds of hardware.

Now with the announcement of more low cost computers the unique position of the XO laptop is gone. And theoretically OLPC could continue its mission even without it. However, at this early stage it is not (yet) advisable to abandon the XO for several reasons.

a) For educational usage it still has unique technical features that should continue to exist as a model for others to follow.

b) Both competeting laptops are not yet established in the market and are both dependent on just one CPU manufacturer (Intel) who could still drop the whole lean computing business if the OLPC XO ceases to force them to continue.

c) OLPC should demonstrate in the near future that their educational method is successful and of course this is more likely to work well with their own XO. Although it is advisable to do the same in parallel with other hardware.

Finally the OLPC project could gain another advantage if the target countries would not have to buy the laptops upfront for a huge amount of money. If the hardware could be payed using a payment plan or by prepayment like cell phones maybe on a yearly basis this would lower the risk for the countries.

Roland, as usual, your comments are quite on target, especially since you try to look at the problem as a whole, not just in terms of technological excellence.

One addendum to my comment above:
It might be a smart move if Quanta/OLPC introduced a low cost "hybrid" laptop useful for adults, highschoolers and also primary schoolers based on the same hardware as the XO incl. mesh network and everything. It should just differ in the GUI like the normal Redhat with overlapping windows instead of Sugar and the housing with a normal keyboard and less toy-like design.

Such a laptop would create the following advantages:
A) It would also attract those countries that are not (yet) convinced of constructionism and primary school computing. High School computing is also improving education as well after all.
B) It would allow Quanta/OLPC to compete in high school computing.
C) It would allow Quanta to compete in the adult low cost market.
D) It would not undermine OLPC's constructionism since also primary schoolers could still use this laptop by loading Sugar back on again. The business like color and the larger keyboard would not be a real hindrance.
E) It would protect the countries' investments since the kids could keep using the same laptops from primary school until finishing high school.
F) This new "hybrid" laptop could supply the primary school market, the high school market and the adult low cost market and therefore benefit from a much stronger scale effect.
G) No lengthy and expensive development would be necessary because very few changes would turn the XO into the low cost "hybrid" laptop.
H) If adults need more storage they still can choose to add large memory sticks or memory cards.

It would mean combining the advantages of the Classmate and the Asus Eee (applicability in different markets) with the technical excellence of the XO and its support for constructionism.

C'mon, Roland, go out and breath a fresh dose of reality ;-)

What makes you think that Negroponte & Co. can develop other machines when they have not been able to even finish the first one?


Delphin

Delphin,

in case of emergency people often are able to do the impossible. Prof. Negroponte and his team definitely have the potential for that. They only need to drop their tunnel view.
And it would not mean a completely new computer. They had just to finish the XO plus a few changes. However, changing their mind set might be the bigger challenge than changing the hardware.

"In order to benefit from this partial success OLPC needs to quickly adapt their operating system and applications to all relevant hardware like Classmate and Asus Eee and publically present it."

One of the advantages of having a platform with controlled hardware and software is stability and optimization (ask any Mac owner). Adapting the OS from the XO to other platforms is certainly doable, mostly considering that everything is open. However I am skeptical in devoting large resources in porting, XO's OS into the classmate or any conventional laptop. Again, it's possible but you will loose a lot of the advantages that the XO benefits today (low consumption, high res screen, power optimization). For that matter I run Sugar on my laptop, but for sure it's not the best way to do it.

So why instead of devoting this extra effort exporting XO's OS to other platfrom, OLPC instead concentrate on the educational content, or application development?

Nick,
I agree that concentrating on education has priority. But if there is capacity left or at least after the XO's development has finished then porting OLPC's OS and its software suite to other platforms would allow that countries which buy Classmates or Asus-Eees to still benefit from some of the collaboration capabilities. This way OLPC would get back a foot in their doors eventhough those hardware platforms do not provide the same support for collaboration. If some countries require OLPC's software on non-OLPC hardware this is also a sign for further low cost laptops to better support the demanded collaboration capabilities. OLPC should try to make their software THE standard for school computing no matter what the hardware is. Their mission is education not laptops after all.

What we are seeing is a lot of positioning of future products, none of which are ready for market. Yes, that includes the XO - witness the comparison on http://blogs.zdnet.com/Ou/?p=522 between the XO and the as-yet-nonexistent Eee.

We all know that when the XO software is finished the boot time will be acceptable - this is usually tightened up at the end of the process, when it is known what the software will be upon bootup. However, it is easier for the reviewer to compare known information unfavorably with uunknowable information. Welcome to the NFL, Dr. Negroponte.

Advice as to what Quanta should do is meaningless. Marketing a computer is a wholly different task from manufacturing one, and there's a reason. Marketing includes providing answers to the question "what do I do with it?", and includes issues of infrastructure and availability of peripherals and software.

OLPC has always wished that these issues would go away, relying upon influence with high political officials to make sales and then claiming that the needed infrastructure and software would appear on its own. This might have seemed a reasonable strategy (to some) in 2005, but now that Intel (with Microsoft lurking just out of sight) is muddying the waters the expected quick order commitments have proven very hard to achieve.

None of this should come as a surprise - this is how the game is played. What you do in a case like this is either (a) give up and sell your design out to the highest bidder, or (b) turn your attention to developing the market for your product and change your plan accordingly.

Yes, OLPC should - make that MUST - concentrate on showing how the XO can help advance education - Roland is quite correct. This will require a major change in OLPC planning, and will involve a significant delay in the shipment date.

Wayan,

Apples and Oranges. ASUS' Eee PC is no competitor to OLPC for the same reasons (discussed many times here already) Intel's Classmate PC is not. Instead, I see ASUS' announcement as the direct response to Quanta's announcement earlier this year:
"Quanta launches ultra-low-cost PCs"
( http://www.ft.com/cms/s/6d086a62-dcb3-11db-a21d-000b5df10621.html )

Having said that, the extra competition for ultra-low-price laptops should be very welcomed...

Eee has a "sales target of moving 200,000 units in 2007."

and "Intel will keep the Eee out of the U.S. market to avoid cannibalizing sales of its higher-priced brand-name customers"

Basically this is another dumping of price by Intel + Asus, only targetting it at that price probably to the select OLPC-target customers. Thus they can share a few tens of thousands of these per country instead of a million OLPC units by the end of 2007.

Intel and Asus are losing at least 200$ per unit selling this one at 199$ in such low volumes, with no margin for resellers and marketing.

If Intel had something low cost to mass produce and distribute worldwide by the years end, then I'd be impressed. But it simply is not the case. Intel is only seeking to spread FUD and to do everything it can to prevent OLPC from launching mass production, cause deep inside top Intel executives know that OLPC brings technologies that will change the whole computer industry and affect Intel's future plans. Intel does not want to have to make fan-less cheap processors with DCON chips which turns off the main processor 99% of the time. Intel wants to delay that technology at least until 2009 or later, to keep making their billions of revenue from selling expensive and power-consuming multi-core processors.

Lee,
we agree that OLPC needs to show how the XO works in education.

"Advice as to what Quanta should do is meaningless. Marketing a computer is a wholly different task from manufacturing one, and there's a reason. Marketing includes providing answers to the question "what do I do with it?", and includes issues of infrastructure and availability of peripherals and software."

One important reason among others for the countries to hesitate with their orders is the XO focussing too narrowly just on primary schoolers without yet proving its claims. Although the competing laptops have also not yet proven their educational validity they are more open for different usage. Now this leads to two possible strategies for OLPC:
a) just keep focussing on the primary schoolers and prove the validity of OLPC's education method
b) broaden the scope of the OLPC laptop but still prove its validity in education. But since a broader scoped low cost laptop could also be sold in for-profit markets OLPC would probably have to leave this business to a commercial organization and maybe get some royalties in return which could subsidize their educational market. My first guess was that Quanta could take this part. By the way AFAIK also ASUS started as a manufacturer and now sells whole computers. The western laptop suppliers like e.g. Dell or Acer would hesitate to sell such low cost models under their label. So it makes sense to sell them directly from the manufacturer in Asia as a kind of "factory-outlet-label".

I don't see your point with peripherals since standard interfaces provide access to the whole range of commercial peripherals. And for the Redhat OS the huge range of Linux compatible software is available. Of course the supplier of this "hybrid" laptop would have to provide support and repair logistics for the commercial market being something also the educational market could benefit from.

Charbax,

"Intel and Asus are losing at least 200$ per unit selling this one at 199$ in such low volumes, with no margin for resellers and marketing."

So you claim - first about the Classmate and now the Eee PC - but when challenged previously, you did not provide any proof to back this up ("Negroponte said so" is not enough). The question remains where's the beef to back your assertion here? I know you aren't a big fan of a certain large chip manufacturer, but the Intel bashing in your commentary here is starting to undermine what you have to say.

If you have proof that ASUS and Intel are losing 50% on each unit shipped, show us what you have; as a post here on OLPC News or on your own site. Until then, please could you try to avoid repeating this claim?

Thank you.

Back to the topic, Engadget China had a "hands on" with this piece of kit yesterday; they seemed pretty impressed:

http://chinese.engadget.com/2007/06/06/computex-2007-asus-Eee-pc-701-hands-on/

I think it's great that laptops for other demographics in developing countries are being developed. OLPC's target audience have parents and older siblings too, you know...

Classmate spokeperson has said target is 100 thousand by years end. Asus spokesperson says 200 thousand units per years end. Asus and Intel are launching Eee together. Eee is branded "Classmate PC" thus probably that the 100 thousand Classmate units talked about are actual Eee for a part of it. So officially there are no plans to produce more than 200 thousand or 300 thousand Classmate/Eee computers during the next 6 months.

Now add that to the simple fact that Eee and Classmate are built with the same components as in current 800$ UMPC computers. With flash memory instead of the hard drive. With probably not all of the same small components as in a UMPC but basically it's the same stuff in there. Also these Classmate and Eee are basically the same technology as current normal laptops, just with UMPC-type processor and screen, other than it's not a touch-screen.

Those basic factors, and the FACT that Intel nor Asus has said anything about releasing such 200$ laptop in developped countries, that is simple to assume that the Bill Of Material price for Eee and Classmate within the next 6 months is not going to be anywhere near 200$.

i think it's a very good idea of having such cheap laptop. but what's the function it can be used to. if children are having laptop for their own, they might be able to learn more. but i is true? in our old minds, it might be true but quanta must assure te public that children will surely achieve better education with their laptop.
as a man with high mobility, we all agree that we need something to work on whilst on the way. a laptop that need to be strong, durable, energy save, and is enough to carry the whole job. an olpc is actually very suitable (according to me) to be carried by us all. of course it will need abit of modification.
as a frequent writer, i need a laptop that will stand for more than 4 hours, it does not need a very highly qualified processor, only a quite large storage. an a better keyboard of course. so mr. negroponte, will you release an olpc in a better spec than b2 for public market? i think i'will be your early buyer.

i'm not sure intel loses so much money on the first Eep pc's because of move to 45 process,changes in processor. but even so , it's not relevant. they $200 is a price that in the long term if the computer sucseeds , both intel and asus will make a profit , because that's how their business model works.

As I suspected, when I wrote http://www.olpcnews.com/countries/usa/olpc_dell_laptop_usa.html
computer manufacturers would be targeting the ultra-portable market that was being threatened by the OLPC XO design. It wasn't enough that Dell decide to offer Ubuntu Linux. Now Asus give us a choice of XP or Linux. I hope Ubuntu will just work on it.

Because so much noise has been made by OLPC in their marketing juggernaut, manufacturers have sat up and taken notice of the huge wave of public opinion. We no longer want the fastest, biggest, power hungry laptops. We dont buy a 17 inch widescreen laptop to do our day to day work. Thats what desktops are for - and may become a dying breed as well.

What surprises me is that Asus may have killed off their UMPC, the A2H which retails for around $1000. Obviously the touchscreen driven UMPC at a thousand bucks wasnt moving very quickly.

Now with 7 inch screens, flash drives and in-the-pocket portability we can wirelessly connect to our web-wired-world for little more than $200.

I'm lining up for an Eee - anyone want an old last-years-model laptop?

Here is the positive spin from Nicholas Negroponte on OLPC Talks: http://www.olpctalks.com/nicholas_negroponte/negroponte_berkman_center.html

Microsoft dropped it to $3 recently and the drop to $3 is very important and we encourage them to do that. If you read stories about it, you would see in the second line, certainly in the first paragraph, usually in the second line, sometimes even in the first line it said "because of OLPC". And Intel made the Classmate. A lot of people did not think. We don't have shareholders, we could declare victory and pack up our tent: I don't need to make a laptop.

But if we did that, price of Windows will go up, Classmate would disappear. We have to keep going, we have to remain open, and we have to keep driving the price down: if nothing else, to keep perpetuating this and to keep the slope down in terms of price/cost.

Sorry to be boring again, but it looks from the specs as though this nice little beast consumes around 4 watts mean while it's running.

( It has 4 * 0.52mAh cells, assume these are in series so voltage is 6V => 12.48 Wh, quoted running time 3 hrs )

What does this imply in terms of string-pulling per hour of computing?

No dice. It's another high school machine, that's all.

Cheers

Martin

this computer is awesome, where can i get one?

Everex has a $499 notebook 15.4" - certainly Asus' $199 is possible without Windows, 15.4" screen, hard disk, DVD drive, etc. The profit margin is probably not many dollars, but to say $200 loss seems odd

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