The lame $100 laptop

I just finished reading Negroponte: Slimmer Linux needed for $100 laptop and it brought back memories of when I first wrote about this pipe-dream (see http://blogs.zdnet.

I just finished reading Negroponte: Slimmer Linux needed for $100 laptop and it brought back memories of when I first wrote about this pipe-dream (see http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=1974). Now that several months have past, I thought it time to revisit this subject from the perspective of Education IT.  (Especially since similar projects are now being considered in the US, using more traditional laptop models -- see my blog Are laptops enough?).

The 'One Laptop Per Child' initiative is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte.  The goal is to provide all (yes, ALL) of the Third World's children with laptop computers -- paid for (and shipped) by foreign governments, and distributed through schools.  To do so, Mr Negroponte originally envisioned a $100 laptop computer with Linux built-in, 'mesh' networking capabilities, and a hand crank for power.  (Remember, jungle villages rarely have electricity.  In fact, in one pilot using more traditional laptops, the recipient child's family was amazed because the computer produced the brightest light in their hut!) 

And what about the Internet?  At the time, Mr Negroponte was envisioning that local governments would provide the infrastructure to get Internet connectivity to the population, either through wireless to the village schools or via satellite directly into the jungle. 

Educating the world's children should certainly be a goal for us all but the OLPC project is, in my estimation, unrealistic in so many respects.  For instance, Mr Negroponte eventually wants to ship 100 MILLION of these $100 laptops EVERY YEAR!  Considering that the annual production of PCs of all kinds is only about 180 million per year, this goal seems ludicrous -- especially when the platform is to be built on an entirely not-for-profit basis.  Of course, at these volumes the potential for even a small profit has a lot of vendors, including Microsoft, drooling at the thought of even a tiny piece of the action on 100 million computers per year! 

Today's article provides us a bit of an update:

Mr Negroponte has recognized the mechanical problems associated with a hand crank and has decided to provide instead a pedal-powered generator to connect to a more traditional AC adapter (in the absence of a convenient plug). 

Originally selecting Linux for its open-source nature and seeming low cost, Mr Negroponte has come to the conclusion that Linux is still 'too fat' for such a RAM/FLASH-only platform.  While wishing for a slimmer Linux, he is now talking to Microsoft about a possible Windows CE implementation. 

He is no longer concentrating on the mesh network model either -- instead he is counting on the network developing 'on its own'.  He says "I think between WiFi, WiMax and 3G, that's going to happen," -- I wonder who's going to pay those monthly fees for wireless connectivity.

And he assumes that these kids will just 'teach' themselves to use these computers. 

In many ways, I still don't think the harsh realities have set in for Mr Negroponte.  Without a network or a hard drive, it is not clear to me how a 128MB, 500MHz PC with 512MB of flash memory for storage is going to benefit any child living in the Third World's jungles.  Computers are just tools and just as a hammer and nail isn't much good without two pieces of lumber to connect, a computer is not much good without information to connect together to form ideas. 

Whether we are trying to educate inner city kids in America or kids living in the world's jungles -- if the infrastructure isn't there to connect the kids to the information we want to impart upon them, the laptop computer goes from being a remarkably useful tool to being nothing more than a toy. 

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