The $100 Laptop

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The $100 Laptop

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History of the $100 Laptop Project

Project developer Alan Kay traces the concept back to the Aldine Press, the printing office started by Aldus Manutius in 1494. As Wikipedia describes it: “Gutenberg gets credit for inventing the printing press with some justification, but Aldus and his sons created the revolution. Gutenberg produced some beautiful volumes. They were priced so that a man of moderate wealth could buy a book. They were still large, heavy volumes and expensive [ca. $60,000 in modern terms]. A church that had a Bible would typically chain it to a reading stand. Aldus created smaller books (called octavo) that could fit in a saddlebag and that the average merchant or craftsman could afford.” Aldus was not the inventor of the printing press, but his “technology,” which produced small, affordable books and made literacy worthwhile for everyday people, was a revolution because it was not just a replacement for scribes and manuscripts; it radically changed the way information was shared and expanded. The $100 Laptop Project is the 21st Century Aldine Press for the whole world.

The modern intellectual roots of the project go back to the 1960s when Seymour Papert, a mathematician who had studied with Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In 1967 the lab introduced the first version of Logo, a computer language designed to support constructive learning.

The Media Lab was first involved with bringing computers to the third world in 1983, when Steve Jobs donated a couple of hundred Apple II computers for children near Dakar, Senegal. Negroponte found that Senegalese kids took to computers “like fish to water”

In 1988 the President of Costa Rica, 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias Sánchez, launched an initiative involving Papert and MIT which has been the “poster child” for using computers in education. A 2002 Forbes article, “Learning from laptops,” reported that Costa Rican “students have been empowered by the technology regardless of their socioeconomic background. The program has helped Costa Rica leapfrog the digital divide, from what was primarily an agricultural economy into the information age. The proof is the foreign investment that the country has recently attracted, notably from the chipmaker Intel, which in 1998 chose to build its first plant in Latin America near the nation's capital, San José.” More than half of Costa Rica’s exports, which used to be primarily bananas and coffee, now consists of integrated circuits.

Laptops in Cambodian VillageIn 1999 Negroponte built schools in two remote Cambodian villages where there is no telephone or sewers, and electricity only from generators. One village has no road. The per-capita income in the villages is $47. The children received 50 conventional laptop computers at a cost to Negroponte of $100,000, including internet access via WiFi. After getting over the fear of breakage, the school children and their families loved the laptops. The first thing their families noticed is that the laptop screens are the brightest light in their homes at night. They have no other electrical devices but use laptop computers extensively to learn. While all the laptops' AC power adapters failed, only one laptop has broken; the children care for them, polish them, and they or family members devised protective cases for transportation. Negroponte says the experience of seeing how the children use the computers over a period of years convinced him of the importance of one laptop per child.

In 2000 Papert worked with Governor Angus King of Maine in passing a law providing one laptop per middle school student. The program, which went into effect in 2002, settled on Apple iBooks as the machines of choice.

Development of the $100 Laptop First Mockup Presented in Davos

Negroponte announced the founding of the project at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2005. The first mockup of the device is shown to the left. OLPC has been at work throughout 2005. Negroponte made an intermediate presentation at the MIT Technology Review's Emerging Technologies Conference on September 27, 2005. He detailed the strategy and the work to date on the first generation device. He will present the first generation tethered prototype at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis on November 17, 2005.

One of the main questions about the first generation device is whether an E ink display meeting all the additional requirements (full color and fast updating) will be available. In mid-October 2005 E ink presented a first, a working 6 inch, 400 by 300 pixel color display at the FPD (Flat Panel Display) International 2005 exhibition in Japan. E ink expects this display to be ready for commercial use at the end of 2006. The goal is to produce a low power, crisp, full-color 120 square inch display at a cost of 10¢ per square inch.

OLPC plans for mass production of the $100 Laptop to begin at the end of 2006 in a quantity of 5 to 15 million, with production scaling up to as many as 150 million in 2008. By comparison, the total worldwide sales of laptops in the last year was about 50 million. OLPC says they will not accept orders until after working prototypes are delivered for trial, but that Thailand already wants to order a million. Brazil's president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, and Egypt's ministry of education are intensely interested, and China is also expected to be an early adopter.

Mass. Gov. Romney with HDLMassachussetts Governor Mitt Romney was, according to the Boston Globe, "already considering a plan to buy laptops for each of the state's middle and high school students at $500 apiece. But then Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss told him about MIT's $100 laptop plan. After meeting in July with Media Lab officials, Romney concluded that the lower price tag of their proposed computer could enable the state to roll out the program more quickly." At the end of September, "as part of an education reform plan, Romney proposed to spend $54 million to buy one of Negroponte's laptops for every student. The first three grades would get computers during fiscal year 2007, while students in the other three grades would get them the following year. The computers would be gifts, so that students could keep them after graduating."

Commercialization

OLPC will intentionally straddle the fence between research and development. They will not go commercial and will not sell to anyone other than governments. Part of the reasoning is to enable coordination with governments in venues where a for-profit entity would not be universally welcome. Another reason is that the $100 laptops are to be completely distinct in appearance and perception from any commercial product, as distinct as a U.S. post office delivery vehicle is.

When the technology is developed, however, OLPC would consider licensing it to for-profits, who could use it to make products perhaps at a $200 price point. Many online comments about the project have stated that there would be a market for a rugged general purpose laptop with the $100 laptop's advanced technologies even in the United States. The income stream would reduce the price of the OLPC laptop or fund future work of the OLPC.

Price Reduction

The $100 Laptop costs too much to achieve the goal of one laptop per child. OLPC therefore intends to drive down the price by improving technologies which will deliver the needed laptop functions but at reduced cost. The foremost example is the display, which is to go from a $35 display to a better $12 display. Production scale is important to the strategy; the initial run is to be at least 5 million units and to increase to 150 million or more a year. The production is to be outsourced; both China and Brazil have been mentioned as possible locations.

Related Projects

Two devices specifically designed to bridge the digital divide at low cost are available for purchase now. These however are more incremental applications of existing technologies rather than revolutionary, emerging technology.

Simputer

SimputerThe Simputer is described as “a low cost portable alternative to PCs, by which the benefits of IT can reach the common man.” It is priced, depending on the display, from $130 to $260. In function and form it is a general purpose computer on PDA hardware. It is sized at 5.6” x 2.8’” x 0.8”, the same width but taller and thicker than a modern Palm handheld computer. Its hardware specs are similar to a PDA:

  • 32 bit Intel StrongARM 206 MHz processor
  • 32 MB of flash memory
  • External 33.6/56 kbit/s V.90 Modem
  • 320x240 LCD display (the $130 model is monochrome)

The Simputer has sold poorly – only 4000 units in the first year, and only 10% of those in its target area, rural India. Only 50,000 units were manufactured, and its price, even lowered from earlier prices of $200 to $300, is far higher than projected. While some models have a nice “flip flop” or “accelerometer” component allowing movement of the whole device to replace a mouse, and it has some software optimized for its target market, the hardware generally is inferior to handhelds at similar price points from vendors like Dell.

Early Simputer ModelThe Simputer differs widely in strategy and execution from the $100 Laptop Project. The device itself is far smaller, adding portability but sacrificing utility, with a small screen and no keyboard. Its components, except for the accelerometer, are the same as a generic PDA’s. Its processor and RAM and long-term memory are far smaller, limiting its potential. It lacks standard connectivity via USB and WiFi, limiting its ability to participate in mesh network community. It also lacks the practical electrical generator of the $100 Laptop.

Also critical is the difference in strategy and its execution. The Simputer made a few units at high cost, and tried to find individual consumers to buy it. The $100 Laptop is finding pre-paid orders from governments for millions of units to supply schools en-masse.

Personal Internet CommunicatorPIC

Advanced Micro Devices has its own initiative, announced in 2004, to bridge the digital divide. Its name, 50x15, expresses the goal of bringing internet access to 50% of the world’s population by 2015. AMD’s chairman of the Board of Directors, president and CEO, Dr. Hector Ruiz, a native of Piedras Negras, Mexico wrote: “As a child growing up in Mexico, I became aware at an early age of the importance of education. As I have learned and developed in my career, I have discovered that perhaps no force can have a greater impact on promoting education than technology.”

AMD released its first 50x15 device, the Personal Internet Communicator (PIC) in October 2004. It has been packaged with internet service provision in India and is available in a complete package for purchase from Cable and Wireless in the Caribbean. The base unit is a highly-integrated computer box in a durable, plastic encased brick-shaped device, with standard interface ports. The base unit lacks input and output devices; Cable and Wireless’s $300 package includes monitor, keyboard, mouse and software. While its components have general purpose capabilities, it is intentionally a closed box; it uses the Microsoft Windows OS but users cannot add software or hardware. Its purpose is to provide reliable, affordable, novice-friendly internet access and basic applications using conventional human interface devices; it is a practical but not a technological advance. It is thus not a rival project for the $100 laptop; it is not portable, is not specifically designed for general education and school use, and requires AC power.

Other Initiatives

Cisco, eBay and other companies are supporting One Economy, a non-profit working to get the Net into low-income homes. In an October 2004 speech, Microsoft's CEO, Steve Ballmer said, "There has to be a $100 computer to go down-market in (emerging) countries." Microsoft Windows is part of AMD's $185 PIC.

Related Older Technologies

 

Minitel

Minitel Terminal ca. 1982

Minitel is a successful, pre-WWW online videotext service introduced by France’s Poste, Téléphone et Télécommunications (now France Télécom) in 1982. Over 40% of the French population used Minitel to access a phone directory and other information services, to buy from retailers and transportation services, and to exchange text messages. The terminals were available at no cost, except that users no longer got a printed personal phone book.

The Minitel project has both admirers and detractors. Detractors point out that Minitel’s success slowed interest in France in the world wide web. Admirers point out that Minitel was low cost, widely accessible, stable and reliable, tat it lowered transaction costs for users years before the WWW was invented, and that French users became comfortable with online activities in the 1980s.

The $100 Laptop Project has some strategy in common with Minitel. Minitel was sponsored by the government as a standard for a large portion of the population, meaning the fixed costs would be shared by many users, and that it would be more valuable because many businesses and individuals used it for communication, and it was designed to be a practical value in day-to-day living. Within its national boundaries, Minitel was widely available and widely used.

The $100 Laptop Project is different from Minitel because it is focused on education, general computing activities and WWW access, because it is portable, and because it is useful anywhere in the world.

Telecenters

Communities and businesses have adapted existing technology to community use by creating telecenters – accessible places where users can go to access the internet, use email, etc. One model employs solitary PCs without any connectivity except for a WiFi card. Users can come to the center and create a message using text, voice and/or video. Periodically someone drives (or rides) by with a WiFi-enabled device which picks up the communications. At the next center, any messages relevant for that center are delivered wirelessly, and any new messages are picked up. Any messages requiring internet delivery are exchanged when passing a center with internet connectivity.

This system works now, but is a far cry from the goal of one laptop per child. It is a great advance in communications for a series of communities – sort of a very slow, vehicle-enabled mesh network, but does not fill educational applications like textbooks for individual children.

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Five©2005 WEMBA 2006 Group 5 Fall 2005