The $100 laptop - don't get carried away

The $100 laptop - don't get carried away

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

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TOPICS: IT Employment
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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.

Topic: IT Employment

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7 comments
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  • I couldn't agree more with the author.

    Besides the technical challenge of mass-producing this devices, responsible governmemts will want to ask how this computer/PDA will be best used in the classrom (is there any available educational software for it?), the costs of maintenance, distribution, internet access, etc.

    The final price tag will be significantly higher than US$100, but nobody knows by how much.

    Finally, there's the issue of wether kids will benefit from using this device. The Maine, USA, experiment that Negroponte cites has not produced any documentable benefit (and that's not an opinion, that's a fact derived from actual student performance testing done by the USA government).

    Poor nations are best adviced to take a look at the details.
    anonymous
  • Seems bit ridiculous for author to suggest that if industry hasn't invented cheaper product it cannot be invented; clearly he is not from Silicon Valley. Companies like Google fly in the the face of that logic. Negroponte's approach doesn't involve reinventing display just using some improvements to reduce cost such as LED backlight and removing color filters. Every year or two there are many innovations in display industry that are more complicated than this. Running this as non-profit and using open open source tecnology and older products from depreciated factories also will cut costs dramatically.
    anonymous
  • I couldn't agree more with the author.

    Besides the technical challenge of mass-producing this devices, responsible governmemts will want to ask how this computer/PDA will be best used in the classrom (is there any available educational software for it?), the costs of maintenance, distribution, internet access, etc.

    The final price tag will be significantly higher than US$100, but nobody knows by how much.

    Finally, there's the issue of wether kids will benefit from using this device. The Maine, USA, experiment that Negroponte cites has not produced any documentable benefit (and that's not an opinion, that's a fact derived from actual student performance testing done by the USA government).

    Poor nations are best adviced to take a look at the details.
    anonymous
  • twit. punk. republican (or comparable). naysayer.
    anonymous
  • Computer pioneer and village systems designer, Lee Felsenstein, has been blogging re: problems with the $100 laptop project:

    http://fonly.typepad.com/fonlyblog/2005/11/problems_with_t.html

    http://fonly.typepad.com/
    anonymous
  • Should we ban the dreams?
    Should a vision ban be legislated?

    A USD 100 PC, multiplied 150 million times.

    Who will produce this? Under the basement by inexperienced workers, designed by fools?

    No pre-production?

    Is this a lie by cheating fake companies-institutions?

    This is a leapfrog, a big gain from every aspect: education, closing the gap, bringing down prices of components, thus other electronic equipment due to increased production levels, etc.

    We should not concentrate on the transient stages of this new era. Look at the bigger picture, and steady state period.

    Even if they cannot reach the USD 100 level, they will try.

    It is better to inform the visionairres of the solutions to problems, rather than judging them for their search in excellence and the impossible.
    anonymous
  • This is classic 'make way please, gadget to the rescue'. Whenever there is a problem engineers sit around scribbling out solutions, they come up with some ingenious designs...

    ...for problems that they fail to understand.

    I have worked in Africa drilling boreholes for countries in dire need to clean water supplys. You don't have to walk far before you come across a defunct borehole which was probably on the cover of some charities glossy brochure surrounded by smiling brown faces a few years before.

    Before you flame me, I am not anti development, I am not anti low technology design, it just needs people to go out to where the problem is and come up with some solutions. They'll get it wrong first time out but with ITERATION, we could see some useful results.

    Getting back to the laptop, what will it be used for? Can the people it is aimed at read? Do you think, having never seen spam they'll fall for the first Nigerian prince needing them to transfer money? Of course they will.

    Richard Feyman was involved in a technology transfer program in S America. His comment was that it was useless trying to teach people what a pump was and transfer the technology to them. They already had it, only it was just the rich that had the pumps.

    The technology may be difficult to produce at the price quoted but even more important is the human side of things. Don't stop inventing and persuing good causes, just get out there and see what works.
    anonymous