Nicholas Negroponte is speaking about the $100 laptop, and the long path that’s led to his interest in the topic. Ultimately, Nicholas believes that in all the problems we’re considering at a conference like Pop!Tech, education is part of the equation. If you can change education, it’s a key to peace, prosperity and widespread social change.
Over twenty years ago, Steve Jobs gave Seymour Papert and Negroponte some computers – Apple IIs – and put they put them into a lab in Senegal. The lab wasn’t sustainable and didn’t survive, but a later lab in Costa Rica did, primarily because a local foundation was formed to support it. Nicholas sees a connection – if not a cause – between this success and the fact that Costa Rica’s main export is microchips.
Negroponte has been involved with a number of rural connectivity efforts in Kashmir, Cambodia and elsewhere. By giving laptop computers to Cambodian schools, Negroponte became enamored with the idea of having laptops in developing world schools… and homes, where they’re often the brightest light sources.
So Negroponte became engaged in the idea of building a $100 laptop, which he says is not so difficult to do. 50-60% of your laptop cost is marketing, distribution and profit. The remainder – a quarter of the total price – is the cost of the display. The remaining quarter is processor, disk and everything else. How do you get those costs down as low as possible?
The answer, beyond the display: don’t use a fat operating system. The processor speed is largely used by bloated operating systems. Five years ago, he says, his laptop ran faster and more reliably than it does today. Software developers are paid to create new features – if developers got paid to remove lines of code, we’d have a very different world. So the processor’s not a problem.
The display, though, is harder. The first idea was a projector – a screen would be a white sheet of cardboard, and the image would be created by a small set of LEDs. It’s too fragile for use in the field. So Negroponte went back to looking at LCDs. Much of the power consumption of a LCD display comes from running color filters. Negroponte says you can run a display in two modes, a higher power color one, and a brighter, lower power black and white display. In low power mode, the laptop should draw less than 1 watt.
Negroponte talks about the laptop as a “trojan horse” – he’s selling at an a ebook, costing $20 a year, amortized over 5 years. After all, governments buy books – the World Bank will probably provide loans to purchase these machines. Negroponte has been visiting large developing nations – Brazil, Egypt, China, Nigeria and South Africa – and trying to convince governments to buy into the idea in a big way.
There’s a scaling issue that will make the laptop idea work, Negroponte believes. Not only can you buy components cheaply, but it enables you to ask a component manufacturer go in a different direction – developing components specifically for low-cost machines.
Negroponte gives some interesting hints about what the machine might look like, and offers a promise that we’ll actually get to see one in November, when he shows it at the Vatican and then WSIS on November 16th. It sounds like the keyboard will fold over to the back, allowing users to look at the screen and type on the back, accordian style. The images he shows are significantly different from the images shown in a recent CNet article – there’s a hint that the keyboard may be customizable for different applications and might not be considered part of the $100 unit. Negroponte also suggests the keyboard could be a fabric keyboard, in some cases.
Interesting to me, the display Negroponte talks about doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the flexible eInk displays some people have talked about in conjuction with this device in the past – it sounds like we’re talking about something much more similar to an LCD screen, with two modes.
Responding to questions, Nicholas tells us that the machine will work on a form of Linux, with a GUI being built by Alan Kay. Asked about networking, Nicholas mentions that the team is looking at the possibility that the machine might be able to function as a mesh node even when not in use.
There’s an interesting question asked about the maintenance of these devices. Nicholas argues that giving students ownership of these devices will guarantee they’re well cared for.
The most interesting thing to me: Negroponte says at one point – “What would it mean for this project to fail? That we get a device six months late that costs $122.50?”
Uh, no. That would be great. Failure would be something that never ships, or never ships in volume, or never gets below $300. Or worse, never gets used in classrooms. I hope that’s not the case, but I still worry that even a $122.50 latop is very hard to accomplish, and I’ll still have some trouble believing it until I see a) a physical prototype, b) a manufacturing process and c) the first ten million ordered…