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November 14, 2005, 2:46 am
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Excerpts from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113193305149696140.html
A plan to develop a $100 laptop computer for distribution to millions
of schoolchildren in developing countries has caught the interest of
governments and the attention of computer-industry heavyweights.
First announced in January by Nicholas Negroponte, the founding
chairman of MIT's Media Lab, the initiative appears to be gaining
steam. Mr. Negroponte is scheduled to demonstrate a working prototype
of the device with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Wednesday at a
UN technology conference in Tunisia.
Mr. Negroponte and other backers say they have held discussions with
at least two dozen countries about purchasing the laptops, and that
Brazil and Thailand have expressed the most interest so far. In
addition, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney recently proposed spending
$54 million to buy one of the laptops for every student in middle
school and high school in his state.
Although no contracts with governments have been signed, current plans
call for producing five to ten million units beginning in late 2006 or
early 2007, with tens of millions more a year later. Five companies -
Google, AMD, Red Hat, News Corp, and Brightstar Corp. - have each
provided $2 million to fund a nonprofit organization called One Laptop
Per Child that was set up to oversee the project.
Still, the project would require governments in the developing world
to come up with $15 billion to supply 150 million laptops, and it
isn't yet clear how many countries can afford even a $100 machine.
Technical hurdles also remain. The device that will be shown in
Tunisia is still an early version - the screen alone will require
another three months of development. The designers also have yet to
bring the overall price down to $100, although they are getting close.
Major computer industry players appear to be taking the venture
seriously, including companies like Microsoft that aren't yet
participating. Microsoft could be confronting a laptop that could
become a standard in the developing world - one that, for now, would
come without Windows software.
Steve Jobs offered to provide free copies of Apple's OS X operating
system for the machine. "We declined because it's not open source,"
says Seymour Papert, a professor emeritus at MIT who is one of the
Under present plans, the first production version of the laptop will
be powered by an AMD microprocessor and use a Linux-based operating
system supplied by Red Hat.
To get the price down, an eight-inch diagonal screen will run in two
modes, with a high-resolution monochrome mode for word processing and
a lower resolution color mode for Internet surfing. It will be powered
by both a power adapter, if electricity is available, or through a
wind-up mechanism. The device will have wireless capabilities and can
network with other units even without Internet access.
Mr. Negroponte says the project's supporters are working to provide
Internet access in some areas via cellular phone networks. He also
believes competition and deregulation eventually will bring low-cost
access to even the poorest countries. The designers say they are
planning to give the laptop a unique look to discourage sales on the
black market in developing countries.
At the same time, they say they are hoping to authorize a commercial
version that would sell for around $200, with a share of the profits
ideally used to subsidize the educational project.
Daryl Sartain, director of strategic business development at AMD, says
his company is "absolutely committed" to the project and that it fits
in with its initiative to bring Internet and computing access to half
the world by 2015.
Meanwhile, Intel says it isn't worried about the thought of millions
of laptops in developing countries powered by a competitor's chips.
"Our view is that whatever it takes to get computer power to places
where it hasn't been before is a good thing," says spokesman Chuck
Mulloy. "But there will be different flavors of these kind of
devices." Noting that Intel is involved in other projects to bring
low-cost computers to developing countries, he says the company has
learned from experience that "functionality is equally important to
Gretchen Miller, director of world-wide marketing for mobile systems
at Dell, said she didn't think a $100 laptop would be powerful enough
to meet students' needs. "We don't believe it's feasible at this point
to manufacture a $100 notebook that meets our quality performance
standards. Those things are all customer driven," she says, adding,
"It's important that a computer prepare students for the applications
they'll be using after they get out of school."
Mike Evans, vice president of corporate development at Red Hat who has
been working on the laptop project for nine months, disputes the
suggestion that the machine will be inadequate for students.
Mr. Papert, who is critical of the computer industry, says one of the
project's goals is to challenge the notion that a laptop must be
expensive. "They've followed a policy of stuffing more and more into
it which most people don't really need and keep the price up. I think
it's quite amazing that they managed to convince the world to accept
that, but they did."
He also says Microsoft, which is a financial contributor to MIT and a
backer of its Media Lab, has undergone a change in attitude about the
$100 laptop. "Their first reaction was to laugh at the idea, then the
next reaction was kind of antagonistic," he says. "Recently, they're
Microsoft's Criag Mundie says he wasn't aware of any antagonism,
adding, "At the end of the day, I think we have fundamentally the same
objectives that the Media Lab project has relative to the kids." And
Mr. Negroponte, after meeting with Mr. Gates, now says, "The machine
will run anything, including Windows."
The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds.
The pessimist fears this is true.
- William P.N. Smith
November 15, 2005, 1:19 am