One Laptop Per Child Sees Surge in National Orders

Despite slower-than-expected sales and tough competition from commercial rivals, the One Laptop Per Child Foundation of Cambridge is enjoying a surge of new orders.

Nicholas P. Negroponte ’66, the MIT professor who set up the foundation to provide low-cost laptops to poor schoolchildren around the globe, said in an interview Friday that the government of Peru has signed a contract to purchase 260,000 of the $188 machines. “It was notarized five minutes ago,” he said, adding that the Peruvian order will make it easier for the foundation to sign up more countries to the program. “It’s momentum.”

Negroponte also said Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim has purchased 50,000 of the machines for distribution in his country. “He’s an old friend, and he’s been involved in this from the beginning,” Negroponte said.

The nonprofit has designed its laptop to eventually cost less than $100 each. It hopes to persuade governments in developing countries to buy millions of the machines and hand them out free of charge as educational tools.

But foreign governments haven’t placed as many orders as Negroponte expected when he launched the foundation in 2005. So OLPC has asked affluent American individuals and charitable groups to buy machines and donate them to children in poor countries. Participants in the Give One Get One program pay $400 for two of the machines — one for their own use and the other to be donated. Participants also receive a year of free wireless Internet access at hundreds of public hotspots operated by T-Mobile. A separate program, called Give Many, encourages charities to pay for hundreds or thousands of OLPC laptops.

Robert Fadel, the foundation’s director of finance and operations, said both programs are paying off. Since the Give One Get One program began Nov. 12, the foundation has received about $2 million in orders every day, he said. That works out to 190,000 laptops total, with at least half donated to children in developing countries. Fadel said many customers end up donating both the computers they buy. Fadel didn’t have numbers on how many machines have been sold through the Give Many system, but said the number runs into the thousands.

The surge in sales of the nonprofit’s laptops comes as OLPC faces growing competition from commercial vendors of cheap laptops. Intel Corp. is pushing a rival computer called the Classmate, while Asus Computer International of Taiwan offers the Eee PC, designed for use in affluent nations such as the United States as well as in poor countries.

OLPC also has been hit by a patent-infringement lawsuit in Nigeria filed by Lagos Analysis Corp. of Natick. The suit claims the foundation stole the company’s keyboard design. Negroponte said the lawsuit is without merit, because OLPC uses a keyboard programming technique developed in 1996, long before the Nigerian patent was filed.

The founder of Lagos Analysis Corp., Ade Oyegbola, was convicted of bank fraud in Boston in 1990 and served a year in prison. Oyegbola insists his Nigerian patent is legitimate and said he plans to file a copyright-infringement lawsuit against OLPC in an American court.

Computer industry analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland, a longtime skeptic of the OLPC plan, was impressed by the foundation’s early sales. “I remain generally skeptical, but that’s some good news,” said Kay. “If you were a budding computer company, you’d be happy to sell 300,000 or so units in your first season.”

But Kay still predicted trouble ahead for the foundation, unless it stops acting like a charity and more like a traditional computer business. “They have to survive on selling products, having satisfied customers, and having people come back for more,” he said.

However, Negroponte said OLPC’s nonprofit status is essential, as it enables the foundation to collaborate with leading technology companies in designing and building the laptop. He said many of the foundation’s partners would not offer assistance if they viewed OLPC as a business rival rather than a charity.