Hippo Manchester
December 1, 2005

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TECHIE: Behold, the $100 laptop

It’s green, cranky and slow, but it might change the world

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If the phrase “$100 laptop” gets you crossing your legs, simmer down.

Created by MIT Media Lab chair and professor Nicholas Negroponte, this cheap tech is designed for distribution to children in poor countries to give them access to the vast knowledge on the World Wide Web.

In other words, it’s not for you. Anyone used to smooth first-person shooter graphics and slick PowerPoint presentations wouldn’t be impressed anyway.

The processor is 500MHz — slow by today’s first-world 3GHz+ standards, but cutting-edge just a few years ago and plenty for less intensive tasks. It will run some as-yet-undecided flavor of Linux, which can be customized to make optimum use of the processor.

One gigabyte of flash memory serves as storage space, while the screen, about the size of those in portable DVD players, can display in color or black and white for maximum outdoor visibility. LEDs illuminate the pixels, unlike conventional LCDs with power-hungry backlights.

To survive outside of cushy office buildings, the green plastic laptop has a rubber bumper around its casing. Its power cord doubles as a carrying strap, but a hand crank can provide all the electricity needed. Just one minute of cranking can run the machine in black-and-white mode for up to 40 minutes, claims Negroponte. Its folding design enables use as an e-book reader or television. Four USB ports and built-in wireless networking complete the package.

What the laptop does not have yet is a solidified manufacturing plan. Negroponte estimates the production costs of the device at about $115 right now, which he expects to decline once production rates go into the millions. His plan is to contract with several foreign governments, committing them to buy at least one million laptops each.

 

The promise of a $100 laptop has been hyped for a while now, and November’s unveiling at a UN conference in Tunisia finally allowed the world to see it. The project, dubbed One Laptop Per Child, has received funding from chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices as well as Google and News Corporation.

There are currently no plans to sell the laptop commercially, though it would probably be marked up closer to $200 if it were. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has proposed a $54 million program to get the laptop into the hands of 500,000 students in his state.

While the intent is not to hook up every kid with bleeding-edge technology, a ZDNet editorial did take issue with the laptop’s specs.

“What Negroponte is describing, with its small screen, cut-down software and embedded processor, is a $130 giant PDA,” said the uncredited editorial. It also criticized the idea of distributing technology to regions without a support network in place should the computers break.

While the second concern is valid, I have to say if I could find a $130 Palm or Pocket PC with Wi-Fi, a 500MHz processor and 1GB of memory that never had to be plugged in, I’d snap it up in a minute. As of 2005, that product does not exist in America. It may not be a revolutionary product in terms of function, but it’s certainly a technical achievement.