As a part of what he says is his life's most important work, MIT Media Labs director Nicholas Negroponte is on course to deliver a $100 laptop to the people who need it most: the world's children. The first prototype, (pictured left, see more photos of it in ZDNet's online photo gallery) is on course to be shown-off for the first time on November 17 at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis.
While the system is spartan in design (for example, it will incorporate a deliberately thinned down version of the Linux operating system), it is unusually advanced in that it bears some characteristics not found in some of today's most advanced notebooks. For example, not only is it a goal of the Labs to get the price under $100, the system is made of rubber so that when it closes, it's hermetically sealed to protect it from the elements such systems might be subjected to (for example, in the jungles of Cambodia). The system has a retractable crank that can be used to generate 10 minutes of power for every one minute of cranking and the display runs in a dual mode: one as a typical color TFT panel for regular "computing" and the other a black and white mode that conserves a significant amount of power and that essentially turns the system into a electronic book. According to Negroponte, as an e-book, governments can hide some or all of the cost of the laptop in budgets that currently cover the purchasing of textbooks for children.
Not only is the project well under way, it has corporate sponsors (AMD, Red Hat, and Google for example) as well as customers. According to Negroponte, the project is working with China (where there are 220 million students in primary or secondary school) as well as Brazil, Thailand, Egypt, and South Africa. Negroponte was also involved in the State of Maine's Learning Technology Initiative where laptops will be given to every 7th and 8th grade student as well as all teachers. Massachusetts recently adopted a similar program that Negroponte was instrumental in as well. In his keynote speech to attendees (one that he admitted included his first PowerPoint presentation, ever), Negroponte said that someone tried to place an order with him during the breakfast before the event. He advised them to first come see the prototype at the WSIS on November 17.
As a side note, the notebook isn't slated to have or need the big honkin' hard drives that today's system have. Where will all that data be stored and what applications will be used in the process? Make a note that Google, already specializing in rich thin-client applications, is a project sponsor. Then, see my treatise on the Google PC. Connect the dots while considering my additional thoughts about the impact on Microsoft (see below).
In discussing the practicalities of such a notebook, Negroponte say that connectivity is a non-issue. "Between WiFi, WiMax, 3G, 4G, etc, there are so many people working on the connectivity problem -- regimes are changing, there's global competition, connectivity is happening -- [that problem] doesn't need me, MIT or the Media Lab" said Negroponte.
Whereas there are plenty of naysayers who say the $100 laptop cannot be done, Negroponte appears to be on a course to prove them wrong. During the presentation, Negroponte said:
50 percent of cost of today's laptops is in sales promotion, marketing, etc. We have none of that cost. The rest of it is the display -- and we have a lot of expertise working to bring the cost of that down to $35. As for the rest of the parts, at least 75 percent of it is there to support the weight of the operating system...I'm not just picking on Microsoft. This is true of Adobe and others as well. Invariably, next release [of software] is worse than next one... It's gotten so fat, so slow, so obese, so unreliable that it's time to start over and dumb it down with skinny Linux -- skinny open source."
As I was listening to this, I thought of how Microsoft already has enough challenges on its hands and that Bill & Co need Negroponte's vision of a $100 laptop and billions of children running Linux on them like most people need a hole in their heads. (With MIT based in Massachusetts and with the recently ratified ODF initiative also being in Massachusetts, is that state turning out to be a real thorn in Microsoft's side, or what?).
While "$100" is the catch phrase, Negroponte, who is on Motorola's board of directors, talked about driving the price even further down.
If someone makes a $10 advance in technology -- in other words you can have the same or better quality for $10 less in the final handset, who gets that $10? In a public company, you have a legal and fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders.... By creating a non-profit, as soon as we make a $10 breakthrough, guess who gets the $10? The kids. the kids. One thing we've told governments is that our price will float. You'll get it at our cost (which may be more than $100 to start). But whatever the price is, hereafter, the price is going to go down."
One of the biggest problems, Negroponte said, are the grey markets and he admits that he doesn't know how to solve the problem, completely. 500 machines disappearing at customs isn't the big grey market problem either. The systems are designed to be the equivalent of a US Postal truck in that there isn't much of a grey or black market for them since they're so easily recognizable. More important are problems like the one they have in Brazil where the government gives shoes to the kids and the parents turn around and sell the shoes and send the kids to school shoeless. To deal with that problem, Negroponte says that the Media Labs will either license or give away the opportunity to a commercial third party like Dell or Lenovo who can go off and sell the device at a price like $200 -- a price that makes it hard for a grey or black market to survive. Each system will also have its owner's name engraved on it.
Even scarier for companies like Microsoft will be the volume of these systems that Negroponte plans to move. By 2007, they hope to be shipping 150 million units to the world annually. That's three times the number of notebooks that the entire industry ships today.
I asked Negroponte how he felt about the Catch-22 proposition that's created when a government like China hands systems like his out to all of its primary and secondary school students while at the same time stifling their ability to use the systems to exercise freedom of speech through technologies like blogs (the Chinese government is cracking down on bloggers). Answered Negroponte: It's a Trojan horse. Uh huh.
It's no wonder that Negroponte considers this to be his life's most important work. If he's successful, it'll probably put him on track for a Nobel Peace Prize as well.