Move over Microsoft, Dell. The $100 PC cometh. From MIT.

Move over Microsoft, Dell. The $100 PC cometh. From MIT.

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Laptops

notebook100.jpgAs 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.

[Editor's Note: David's photographs of the two-day MIT conference can been seen in these galleries: Day One and Day Two.]

Topic: Laptops

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  • This would be great

    Does anyone know what price they have it down to at this time?

    I don't know that many current computer users would be interested in such a stripped down machine, but for those that do not have one today it is better than not having one at all.
    • Heard this one before

      I'm sorry, but so many things are so over hyped today (The Segway, anyone?), I just have to say, I've heard this one before...
      John Zern
      • So that means that they should not try?

        What makes you think that a 'good enough' PC could not be sold for $100?

        I bet that someone could manufacture a Pentium (pre MMX) for clost to that price, being small as the MIT device is also keeps the price up, it might cost less if they abandoned the laptop direction that they have decided on.

        No one rationally beleives that it is going to even be on par with a normal consumer PC, even the Linux people would want more of a 'PC' than this cheap device. You should think of it as being more like an appliance than a PC.

        BTW, a few people near my home actually own Segway HT's. They look pretty cool, but I wouldn't buy one because I need the exercise. :)
  • question

    So what's to keep Dell, HP or someone else
    to develop a system with a stripped down
    version of Windows, Windows Mobile or XP embeded?

    The new technology is what makes the laptop
    cost to drop to a $100, MS software for OEM's goes up to 50...not much of a big deal if you consider that the mass adoption rate being considered is based on a price that is only 10% of the current laptop price, MS could easily lower the OS price for such a huge volume...

    It would end up being like Palm vs MS a few years ago, MS was more expensive but could do more and was more familiar, Palm was less 'fat', simpler and less expensive,..

    Time will only tell
    • Yes, Microsoft makes lean operating systems...

      ... and Steve Ballmer was heard to say that the world needs a $100 pc.

      Did he assume that $100 pc would run on Linux?
      Anton Philidor
      • It's not free so it doesn't apply

        But Microsoft does make Windows CE, the OS that runs on PDAs and cell phones. On a 500 MHz CPU and a gig of RAM it would run well, but it would not be free and that is a requirement.

        Obviously you were making a well deserved MS jab, but the sarcasm was technically incorrect.
        • Cost

          Windows CE can be licensed for as little as $5-10 / copy. Volume tends the drive the exact amount, with higher volumes yielding lower rates (given the volumes planned for the MIT laptop, I bet the price would be on the low end).

          So, free is NOT a requirement. The question is whether a nominal proprietary fee is acceptable. It won't be to "free software" fans, but that isn't most people.
          John Carroll
          • That's $5-10 out of $100, though

            The objective seems to be to produce as inexpensive a computer as possible, so why add an extra 5-10% to the price if you don't have to? And then there's the "free as in freedom" angle, too: Just distribute any modifications that you may or may not need to make to the kernel and suddenly there's no need for EULA lawyers either ;-).
          • im sorry john but no

            why should 5 to 10 buck should be send to M$ when you have linux ready and FREE.
            Least us think that even if linux is not that perfect it will be enough by a miles for a pc 100$.

            because what do you need OOo,web,cal,xpdf,scribus a few science appz,dictionary ,its about it .

            this machine is a tool not anything else period there no way what so ever why we would need M$ trash .

            even more i found quite discusting that M$ wanna make money on the back of the poor childrens quite low in my point of view
        • Not obviously. obviously.

          You must not be familiar with Anton's posts or it wouldn't be obvious to you that he was making a jab at MS. He wouldn't do that, deserved or not.
          Still Lynn
      • He said the world needed...

        he didn't say he could deliver.

        You can't even touch a MS OS for 100$.
  • I would buy them...

    and make people by them too.

    If I look at what I do on a computer, basicaly, it's writting text or reading text.

    Dont get fooled, I own and work with computer since my brand new Vic 20. I use and work with MS stuff every day and I like it. I would probably still use my big Iron for some gameplay and other stuff.

    But if you go back 10 years ago, we could play games and do stuff that were way cool on a 486 or Pentium stuff. Ok I know it would now not be able to play many games, but games are always on the bleeding edge.

    I bet that if 150 million computer got shiped every year, it will atract so much consumers that all kind of software and gameware would be made for it.

    It all gona use a different buisiness model. Games wont be sold in a box, but made available trough the net. They will offer richer gameplay than today, but not much. They will rely more on connectivity. How to make them profitable? By selling in game ads. Other paying online games would also do the trick, but in a minor proportion.

    Business model for software will change too. What if a small company (with 1-20 employee) can use those for sales, marketing, planing, managing the company? There is no difference if we cannot use Office, we just want to do stuff and writte text.

    If all the apps I need are made to work online, then I dont need the big iron.

    PCs have made the IBM big centralized computer monopoly irrelevant. Microsoft and Intel won the next phase on the monopoly course.

    The PC cometh will make the MS empire crumble, but it's not clear that Google will be the next big player.

    Google is certainly in advance but they are certainly not on a lock-in proposition at all, not the like of the Office-Windows file format lock-in.
    • You know, everyone talks about Google

      ... as they are the new "big" Player on the block. Why is that? Do they have an extensive patent portfolio? Do they have tens of thousands of programmers feverishly working on the next version of whatever? Or is it because they succeeded in hyping themselves up to the point of X-factoring their IPO several times over? I thought we all grew up on Black Friday in 2001, but I guess we'll just have grow up some more...

      Hooray for vaporware!
      • not armies of programmers but scientists

        AFAIK they have armies of mathematicians and scientists and so on.
        An army of programmers feverishly writing code wouldn't ever come up with a nuke, or the efficiencies that Rob McNamara and people like him working for the USAF came up with that won WW2.

        Look at how google earth works: it's very innovative I think. The core algorithms of google were not created by a regular coder, they were created by mathematicians.

        Armies of labourers building houses wouldn't come up with a super-thermal-insulating material to build houses out of. You'd need a top scientist to do that.
        • WW2

          History Lesson -

          Robert McNamara was Sec'y of Defense during Viet Nam War and his "whiz kids" got a lot of things wrong there.

          WW2 was 1939-1945 and was won due to American industrial might being able to equip American and allied armies and navies with large amounts of materiel. The technology was not always on the leading edge, Germany has the edge there, but the amount of equipment that was produced overwhelmed the sometimes superior technology of the enemy.

          The point is your don't always need the best equipment, whether in war or in computers. Sometimes a pencil and a yellow pad will suffice. BTW, the last I heard the cost of creative thinking was free.
          • prior to that he was hardvard prof and prior to that USAF bombing stats

            McNamara was against the president's policy on vietnam, but out of respect for democracy he did the job anyway.
          • McNamara wasn't opposed to Johnson's policies

            He was the author of many of them, as well as the boy who decided that body counts were a good metric for success...
    • stripped down systems are not new

      Some how people like you always turn something into a Anti-MS rant when it has nothing to do with Microsoft, you need to get your head out of the sand.

      I remember seeing a Email machine at CompUSA a few years ago, it did Email and I believe that it could print your Email; it may have even had some sort of word processing functionality. It disappeared shortly after it appeared. No demand for appliances. There are a couple of other cases that turned out more or less the same way. Even Linux users won't be dumping their PC based units for something like this.

      This one is designed for people living in 3rd world conditions, who have no idea what a computer game looks like. I don't understand why they picked the laptop format as a larger box would have been cheaper, but it makes sense for the market it was designed for.

      As far as the wireless connectivity in Brazil or South East Asia or Africa is concerned I believe that the folks at MIT are being unrealistic in believing that the market will have the wireless infrastructure in place to support this device. The moment anyone starts setting up wireless transmitters in third world countries the poor people that live there will tear them down and sell the scraps. It doesn't matter that someone might steal the laptop if the network that makes it practical is not functional, this issue should not be assumed taken care of by the people at MIT. That is the reality of their world.
      • But a solution for this market segment is.

        My kids already have a desktop machine. But they have to share it. They don't have laptops, and I'm sure they would ask for this. If I didn't buy it, Grandpa would, or they could get it themselves with their birthday money.

        Email machines might not be in demand, but my first laptop was little more than what you described. It had a 720k floppy and ran no more than what fit on that. I used it for email, but through my corporate mainframe since this predated 99.999...% of current Internet connectivity. I had a portable dot matrix printer that cost more back then than a top quality laser printer does now. Things evolve. If they get their foot in the door with this, the capability will only get better.

        Even now, my kids are begging for a laptop. If you go into a toy store, you will find things that look like laptops, and have a keyboard and a tiny LCD screen that can't rival the first Palm Pilots. But my son asked for one anyway. I convinced him that his desktop machine can already run better games and he didn't need one, but I would have bought it had it been what's being described here. Even that cheap glorified game boy was $50. $100 for something that can do something real is a bargain.
        • your kids see it as a toy, not a computer

          If you want to see it in that light, it could be considered a toy and if they break it you will be less irritated. However, if anyone wants to do something useful they will find this unit lacking because we are accustomed to better. For people in 3rd countries this is something better so it would fly there.