Intel Looks Closer to Home for Classmate ‘Netbook’ Sales

Intel’s low-cost Classmate PC, originally focused on emerging markets, will soon be available to U.S. and European consumers.

Intel is working with original equipment manufacturers to bring the second-generation Classmate to mature markets in the developed world later this year at prices likely between US$300 and $400, Agnes Kwan, an Intel spokesperson, told LinuxInsider.

Kwan declined to provide specifications of the new Classmate, but Intel will announce them in the coming weeks, she said. The current model is available with Windows or Linux as its operating system.

Intel considers the machines part of the newly emerging “netbook” category of affordable, Internet-connected computers, she added.

“The expansion is very much based on the great response we’ve gotten from customers around the world,” Kwan said.

Turbulent History

Intel has a turbulent history in low-cost laptop efforts, most notably its rocky relationship with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) effort, which it joined and then left after a few months.

OLPC aims to bring laptops and learning opportunities to the most remote areas and poorest children of the world. Its XO is a Linux-based laptop currently running a processor produced by Intel rival AMD and priced at about $200.

While orders for the low-cost XO have been few and far between from third-world countries, the OLPC did win a $3.5 million contract to provide Birmingham, Ala., schoolchildren with 15,000 computers.

Now Intel appears to be looking closer to home as well.

Traditional Diffusion Model

“I think this is OLPC losing the battle but winning the war,” Wayan Vota, editor of One Laptop Per Child News, told LinuxInsider.

OLPC has always wanted to be the exclusive low-cost laptop option for education, but “it’s definitely lost that” to the Classmate and other competitors, Vota explained. On the other hand, OLPC has “won the overall war in getting manufacturers to realize that a huge market is waiting for them in the developing world at lower price points.”

OLPC was trying to fly in the face of the traditional technology diffusion process through which innovations begin in the hands of early adopters — traditionally, wealthy Westerners — and then spread from there to the masses and the poor, Vota noted. Instead, OLPC wanted to start with kids in schools in the developing world.

“As we’ve seen by the lack of orders, that model has not been successful,” he added.

‘More Accessible Price Point’

Instead, “what I think is happening is the greatest gift OLPC has given us so far: a huge drop in base laptop costs,” Vota said.

By dropping laptop costs to a more accessible price point, “we’ll have a huge and quick diffusion of technology outside the super-rich and elite,” he explained. “Now you can take a laptop into an environment with adverse conditions — where it’s hot and dusty — and if it breaks, it’s no longer the end of the world.”

Ultimately, OLPC will be the “TiVo of the laptop market,” Vota predicted. “Everybody will always think of OLPC as the low-cost laptop, but most people will be using a more generic model provided by mass market retailers.”

Third-World Plans

Intel’s plans to make the second-generation Classmate available in the developed world does not affect its plans to market the original Classmate in developing markets, where about 30 pilot projects are currently under way, Kwan said.

Yet “the Classmate wasn’t really designed for third-world environments,” Lee Felsenstein, a spokesperson for the Fonly Institute, told LinuxInsider. “That was always a topic of discussion, that it’s not really made for that — the XO is very clearly much more rugged.”

In terms of strategy, “I actually think it’s better that they start in the United States because there are a lot of bugs that have to be worked out in the process,” Felsenstein said.

Critical Testing

The OLPC’s “was a plan of ignoring problems,” he added. “They were just going to ship the computers and worry about the problems later, and kids would magically learn from them and all would be well.”

What’s actually happened, however, is that “that plan has pretty much fallen apart totally,” Felsenstein said. “The best that has come out of it has been that they’ve sold it in the developed world.”

Getting both the Classmate and the XO “into the hands of enthusiasts here is very important and necessary,” he concluded. “They’re the ones who will come up with the solutions.”

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