MIT readies $100 laptops for the underprivileged

The MIT Media Lab's project to develop and sell a $100 laptop is expected to see the first machines available in 2006.

An ambitious plan by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Media Lab to develop and distribute a laptop computer costing no more than US$100 is expected to take a major step forward next month with the receipt of the first order.

Orders from five or six countries, for a total of 6 million machines, are hoped for before a full pilot project can begin, said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the MIT Media Lab, in an interview in Tokyo on Monday. The basic aim of the project is to provide a laptop for every child, supplied though any country that wants to offer them.

Negroponte is in Japan to promote the project at the Tokyo Ubiquitous Network Conference, a sideline conference to the United Nations' World Summit on the Information Society, bringing together delegates from around 80 countries.

Many countries lack the means or ability to realize the full potential of their children through their current education systems, he said. However, as Negroponte envisions it, the combination of laptops to all children, broadband connections for the towns and villages those children live in and a school syllabus for the use of digital materials, will improve not only the education each child receives but their future prospects as well.

Advanced discussions with various governments for pilot projects are already well underway, Negroponte said. China is expected to order 3 million machines and Brazil is expected to buy 1 million of the laptops. He's looking for three more nations -- one each in Africa, the Middle East and South East Asia -- to commit to laptops orders, in addition to supplying some to the U.S., before the machine goes into production, hopefully sometime in 2006.

The standard sales model for laptop computers requires a lot of capital for distribution, promotion and profit, but Negroponte is convinced that with a simplified sales model and some reengineering of the device itself, the $100 price point can be realized.

The machine won't be available in shops. The company, which has the working title of The $100 Laptop Co., plans to sell laptops in-bulk, directly to government ministries and isn't looking to make a profit. About half the price of a current laptop computer is accounted for by marketing, sales, distribution channels and profit, so removing those aspects will provide big cost savings, Negroponte said.

The remaining half of the laptop's cost is accounted for by the parts and manufacturing, and Negroponte is planning savings there too. Roughly two thirds of this cost is the display panel and associated backlight, but Negroponte's version of the machine will use a projection display system that costs a total of about US$30, he said.

"The rest of the cost is there to support an absolutely obese, overweight and unreliable operating system. If you get rid of that and start with a thin, tiny operating system you can do an awful lot," Negroponte said.

The laptop will run Linux, he said. The distribution hasn't been decided upon yet but the project is in serious discussions with Raleigh, North Carolina, Red Hat Inc. and Beijing's Red Flag Software Co. Ltd., Negroponte said.

The first generation machine will be based on a 500MHz processor from Advanced Micro Devices, which is one of the project's main backers, and will have 256M bytes of main memory, 1G byte of flash memory in place of a hard-disk drive and a wireless LAN connection, he said. The machines will automatically connect with others, forming a mesh network to support communications and also Internet connection sharing and they'll run software including the Skype voice-over-IP application, Negroponte said.

Plans are already advanced enough to include second and third generation machines, due in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Negroponte said. A prototype of the third generation machine he demonstrated was a tablet form-factor based on a plastic-film display from E Ink. That machine could also use an advanced printing technology to produce the circuit board further cutting down the price, he said.

Current plans call for the first 6 million machines to be manufactured in China and then for regional manufacturing centers to be established. Brazil is also interested in building a plant to produce laptops for its market and those in South America, Negroponte said.

Additional manufacturing will be needed if the project reaches its eventual goal: production of between 100 million and 200 million laptops per year. In comparison the total worldwide PC market in 2004 was 195 million, according to a recent report from IDC.

The project is being headed by Negroponte along with two other MIT faculty members: Joe Jacobson, who developed the E Ink technology, and Seymour Papert, who is an expert on child learning. The project's home page is: http://laptop.media.mit.edu.

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