The race to supply low-cost laptop computers to students in developing nations has heated up: Within hours of the news that Uruguay had become the first nation to buy XO laptops from former MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization, Intel Corp. countered by unveiling deals with two African nations to purchase its Classmate PCs.

The dueling announcements underscore how competitive the global market has become for makers of educational technology.

Uruguay’s government has placed the first official order for OLPC’s so-called “$100 laptop,” which now costs nearly $200, according to several news reports. The South American country has ordered 100,000 XO computers for schoolchildren ages six to 12. Uruguay might purchase an additional 300,000 of the machines to provide one for every child in the country by 2009.

The sale gives a boost to OLPC, which has acknowledged having trouble getting orders.

“I have, to some degree, underestimated the difference between shaking the hand of a head of state and having a check written,” Negroponte, OLPC’s founder, recently told the New York Times. However, he said he was “delighted” with the first deal.

“We commend Uruguay for being the first country to take concrete actions to provide laptops to all its children and teachers and look forward to other countries following this example,” he said.

Not to be outdone, Intel and Microsoft announced that they are supplying Libya’s government with 150,000 Classmate PCs, Reuters reports. Like the XO machines, Classmate PCs are rugged laptop computers that cost about $200 to build and are designed to meet the needs of children in developing countries.

According to Intel spokeswoman Agnes Kwan, Libya’s education ministry ordered the machines in August, and shipments began in September. “So far it’s going well. We’re just a month into the deployment,” Kwan told Reuters.

Libya’s domestic press reported the sale of the Classmate PC devices in August, she said, but Intel and Microsoft had yet to discuss it outside of that country–until now.

Kwan also said that Intel had signed up Nigeria as a Classmate PC customer, though she said she did not know how many machines the government would order, or whether they would run on Windows or the rival Linux operating system. Classmate PCs are capable of running both types of software–an advantage that gives the Intel-made devices a leg up on OLPC’s machines.

The XO uses a homegrown, open-source operating system that avoids windows, folders, and other familiar formats in favor of a new approach designed to be intuitive to children.

Microsoft has been working to get Windows to run on XOs. But it doesn’t appear that will be ready soon, said Will Poole, who heads Microsoft’s emerging-markets group. That’s because it’s hard to tweak Windows so it can interact with the nonstandard things that make the XO innovative, such as its display and power-saving technologies.

Classmate PCs are just part of Intel’s education business in Nigeria. The Associated Press reported Oct. 31 that Intel has launched a “digital inclusion project” in Nigeria that aims to train 150,000 teachers, provide computers to schools, and pilot an electronic means for hospitals to care for children in remote areas.

Intel Chairman Craig Barrett said the company is certain that channeling more funds to education and health projects in Africa–the world’s poorest continent–will yield good business dividends in the long term. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with more than 140 million people.

“Nigeria is a major emerging market, and it cannot be ignored,” Barrett told AP, adding that the world’s next 1 billion internet users will come from emerging markets.

“There is only a 2 percent internet penetration in Africa, leaving a huge gap,” he said. “This is not only a commercial opportunity but also poses a challenge and a compelling need for companies like ours to meaningfully invest here and grow the market.”

Intel and OLPC appear to be working together, even as their respective machines compete for business in developing nations. In August, Intel announced that it would join OLPC’s board and contribute both money and technical expertise to the project.

Intel also has teamed with Taiwanese computer maker Asustek to unveil another low-cost educational laptop, the $299 Asus Eee PC, earlier this year.

Though these low-cost computing projects target children in developing countries, their impact is being felt in the United States, too.

In September, OLPC announced that it would sell its XO computers for a brief period in the United States for $400 apiece, with the profits going to subsidize a machine in a developing nation.

U.S. schools also are likely to feel a ripple effect as manufacturers compete to reduce power consumption and trim costs to meet emerging ed-tech markets around the world.

Links:

One Laptop Per Child

Intel Education

Asus Eee PC