Thursday, May 25, 2006
First working '$100 laptop'
Following many prototype 'mock-ups', here is the first working model of the One Laptop Per Child project, unveiled at the Seven Countries Task Force Meeting yesterday in all its 'Fisher Price, My First Laptop Computer' glory, along with a number of 'nearly finished' prototypes.
Nicholas Negroponte (co-founder of MIT Media Lab, writer of Being Digital) heads up the OLPC organisation whose vision is to provide every child in developing countries with a laptop computer.
The proposed $100 machine will be a Linux-based, with a dual-mode display—both a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white reflective and sunlight-readable at 3× the resolution. The laptop will have a 500MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory; it will not have a hard disk, but it will have four USB ports (that's what the cute 'ears' cover when in the 'down' position).
The laptops will have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a mesh network; each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. The laptops will use a number of power sources (including wind-up handle models). (for more information, visit the OLPC FAQ).
This is a massive project, with equally massive hurdles still to be jumped. For OLPC to make the laptops at $100 each, production has to begin with a minimum run of five million units. Until this target has been achieved, manufacturing won't begin. OLPC is pinning its hopes on massive orders - up to a million units from the bigger economies of the emerging world - Brazil, India, China, Nigeria. And it needs for these countries to pay for the units in advance.
Not everyone is convinced that this will ever happen. As the Register reports:
As the head of one NGO told us: "To achieve this production run elected politicians in China, Brazil, India, Nigeria etc. will need to put their reputations and political careers on the line and gamble millions of dollars from already over-stretched education budgets on an unproven, Beta Ver 1.0, non-standard technology being produced by an outfit with no prior track record. I don't really expect experienced politicians to do this."
Still, OLPC is concentrating minds on supplying ICT needs for poor people in developing countries. Many analysts expect the mobile phone to be the internet access of choice in developing world. They are cheaper than PCs - and there are far more of them.
Microsoft is taking a different tack, by offering cheaper software licences to poor countries, and by offering a different mode of consumption. This week it announced its ideas for a pay-as-you-go PC, specifically for developing countries.
And then there are the millions of functioning PCs discarded in rich countries each year. It is already possible to send a P4 laptop complete with Windows or Linux software from the UK to Africa for a little over $100. Linux International director Jon Maddog Hall this week told a conference in South Africa that refurbishing old PCs and installing open source software might be a better way to bridge the digital divide. Hall was careful not to dismiss Negroponte's scheme, but said other solutions might work better in some areas.