Cheap Linux PCs may pressure One Laptop Per Child

OLPC's XO laptop faces pricing and adoption pressure from tumbling prices of commercial laptops.

As component prices drop, the aggressive pricing of commercial Linux notebooks could hamper efforts by One Laptop Per Child to supply inexpensive laptops to children in developing markets.

Asus recently shipped its Linux-based Eee PC, which will arrive in Australian stores by Christmas, and Everex said it would soon sell Linux-based PCs with an x86 processor for under US$300 (not available locally). Those competitive prices may draw buyers to commercial laptops over One Laptop Per Chilld's (OLPC's) specialized XO laptops, which will carry a US$200 price tag when it ships on November 12, analysts said.

OLPC, a nonprofit organization, is hoping its low-cost XO laptop will revolutionize learning for children in the developing world. Afflicted with production delays and rising costs, the XO has jumped from its original estimated price of US$100 and the effort now faces pricing competition from commercial laptops.

The progressive integration of hardware to include more features like graphics helped drop prices of commercial laptops, said Roger Kay, founder and president with Endpoint Technologies Associates. The price of LCDs (liquid crystal displays) fell because of stiff competition between suppliers, Kay said.

The increasing price of RAM was countered by falling prices of microprocessors, a result of heated competition between x86 vendors like Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, said John Greenagel, director of communications with the Semiconductor Industry Association.

The notebook market will remain strong as costs fall and commercial products could become great alternatives to the XO, Kay said. "People like the standard stuff, and if you can get it for nearly the same price, why go with the de-featured product?"

However, the XO is not targeted at U.S. kids or consumers, said Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies. India and countries in Africa have different usage scenarios and the XO laptop is geared more for them, Bajarin said.

Commercial laptops have a different value proposition and are meant for a different audience, Bajarin said. OLPC's XO has a Linux build with programs to educate children and charges batteries adapted for the local environment, using yoyos, solar panels and cow-powered generators.

The falling laptop prices won't affect OLPC though, according to Walter Bender, president of software and content at OLPC. In fact, he said that the Eee PC is a good development for the commercial industry. "The whole industry is moving in the right direction," Bender said.

Though OLPC's goals differ from commercial organizations, falling laptop prices is a good thing for OLPC, Bender said. OLPC has taken advantage of 50 years of development of the commercial sector to the XO laptops, Bender said.

Part of OLPC's strategy to reach kids is to put the commercial sector behind the project, Bender said.

"OLPC's goal is to get connected laptops to kids, not particular connected laptops to kids. If the commercial sector will provide those tools, more power to them," Bender said.

To date, OLPC has received orders to supply XOs to countries like Peru, Uruguay and Mongolia. OLPC faces competition from Intel to supply laptops to kids in developing countries, which has supplied its US$200 Classmate PC laptop to Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, Pakistan and Libya.

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