The $100 laptop - don't get carried away

Negroponte's dream may not match reality, for all its Utopian promise

It's one of the great Utopian visions — universal access to the world's knowledge without limitation of wealth, location or social position. The logical conclusion to universal literacy and universal suffrage: nobody can argue against it as a force for good.

So when Nicholas Negroponte and his team from MIT says that he can do just this with a $100 laptop designed for every child, it takes an icy soul to be contrarian. Still, it's winter in London.

If it were possible to mass-produce a $100 laptop today, it would have been done — there is no more ferocious margin-cutting feature-sensitive jungle than that of the PC industry. What Negroponte is describing, with its small screen, cut-down software and embedded processor, is a $130 giant PDA — and one that has, in the words of Rumsfeld, certain known unknowns.

Take the display. A new technology is promised, offering unique qualities matched to the task. Is it possible to make something this unique more cheaply and more reliably than existing LCDs, which have been ruthlessly improved and cost-reduced for decades? Most new display ideas fail before commercialisation, as companies like Intel have found out after tens of millions of pounds. This project will not have that luxury.

And the communications — mesh networking is another exciting new technology, but how it will work where each node has a fleeting, hand-cranked presence? The connection onwards to the Internet is even more problematical: there are potential ways to do this from fixed Wi-Fi, satellites or even mobile caches, but none work well with intermittently connected PDAs.

Do we even want to risk new and untested technologies in conditions where there is no infrastructure or money to cope with failure? Every engineer with real world experience knows how to answer demands to make things cheaper, perform better and have higher reliability: pick any two. Building down to a price is only good where the compromises do not affect primary function, otherwise the results can sour a market for decades.

Companies with experience of putting technology into the hands of the world's dispossessed have found good results from systems that are robust, capable and designed to be shared. One PDA per child is an idea: one proper PC per village with a permanent wireless connection to the Net has the demonstrable potential for a much higher return on investment. It sounds less revolutionary, but it delivers.

Negroponte has an attractive vision. Then again, MIT's Media Lab has never lacked vision. It should shame nobody to ask about delivery, appropriateness and long-term strategy. Utopias are never cheap.

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