$100 laptops — now what’s the next step?

It’s starting to look like Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, might just make his plan for a sub-$100 laptop work. Yes, that’s one hundred dollars. It has some very interesting innovations, and makes all sorts of interesting ideas possible.

The laptop is being developed by a newly-formed foundation, called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) — have a look at the official FAQ. The idea is to make a really cheap but very usable laptop, which will be bought in quantities of at least a million, by governments, and distributed to schoolchildren. The idea is no less than, well, one laptop per child, anywhere in the world.

The group recently revealed a prototype. The design is very rugged, with a tough rubber case, and an AC adapter that doubles as a shoulder strap. The display is LCD-based, with two modes: normal colour, and a much brighter monochrome for outdoor use. Apparently it’s also ridiculously cheap, but still very high-resolution. The processor is 500MHz, and the fragile and expensive harddrive has been replaced with 1Gb of flash memory.

The machine has 4 USB ports, and Wi-Fi connectivity which will use a novel “mesh” networking model, where computers will also forward data to other machines, so that each computer extends the reach of the wireless network without needing more base stations. To further enhance portability, they come with a hand-crank which can be used in the absence of AC power. And, of course, it’ll be running a trimmed-down version of Linux.

This isn’t the first idea of its type, but it really seems to be taking off — apparently Brazil, China, Egypt, South Africa and Thailand have all said they will buy over a million units, and the governor of Massachusetts wants to buy them too. Making that many is of course a huge undertaking, but there a number of big name companies involved: AMD, Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, and Red Hat, for example. OLPC hopes to ship the first orders by the end of next year, or early 2007.

There are, of course, many projects to get computers into classrooms around the world (like, say, this one), and many have been very succesful. But each child having a laptop is a somewhat different proposition, with new opportunities. So I’ve just started thinking about what potential applications or ideas this sort of thing could open up.

The first thing that came to mind was textbooks. It would be great if the machines could come pre-installed with a selection of textbooks, or those books could come on cheap USB flash drives. This would make them updateable, and allow them to include internet links. It would also make textbooks affordable to children everywhere. There are already projects underway to write open source, free textbooks — a South African project, Free High School Science Texts, has the bulk of the text of a physics textbook, as well as much of a biology, maths and chemistry book. They’re working now with WikiBooks, a project using the Wikipedia engine to allow the creation of free books. So with a last push to get these through, it shouldn’t be hard to create a really useful package of textbooks that can be easily distributed — so avoiding one of the biggest problem with free textbooks, namely how you pay for the printing.

Being laptops, the children will of course take them home, which means all sorts of opportunities to use the availability of internet access in many more homes. As an example, the South African Post Office has some computers in some branches that allow people to use a community services portal that gives access to simple email, a job application (resumé) generation program, access to the paperwork required to get various government social security benefits, entrepreneurial advice, listings of university scholarships, and so forth. Often the people who could really benefit from this sort of information don’t get it, so this could really help social programs reach those that most need them.

But there are also all sorts of interesting applications one could add — think of cheap USB soundcard and small flash drive, in the shape of a phone handset. Throw Skype onto it, and you’ve provided every child with free phone calls to any other Skype-enabled computer (and each other), or very affordable calls to any other phone in the world — that is, cellphones without the hideous costs.

I’m quite excited by it all — and the textbook project, say, is quite approachable. Now I just need to find the relevant people to contact to get OLPC and the textbook consortium talking…

Exercise for the reader: Think of another killer app for universal laptop access. Then let’s see if anyone’s interested in making it happen.

22 thoughts on “$100 laptops — now what’s the next step?

  1. Howzit Bob,

    Strikes me that this could be used fairly effectively for schooling in rural areas, where access to a decent classroom is denied to a lot of youngsters. You’d need a wireless access mast in the vicinity, but education could simply be up-and-downloaded directly to each student’s machine. Of course, a community such as this might have trouble affording said technology, but if the government is willing to foot the bill…

    Another source suggested using a network like this as a way for a country to supply its out-of-touch population areas with public information. I know down here we still have issues such as people not knowing what human and civil rights they are entitled to, or how & where to apply for official documents etc.

    Anyhoo, just a pair of lonely thoughts…

    Regards, me


  2. This IS exciting! Given the wifi capabilities of the laptops and mesh connection model described, I would say that this opportunity lends itself naturally to the wiki paradigm. In many developing countries (like SA) unemployment is a major issue. This project has the potential to turn a major weakness into a major strength. If the laptops could come bundled with a free C compiler and tutorial on C programming, many people who have no job could learn to program. Using the wiki model, each person could code a piece of a specified program and it could all be put together in the end. Also, anyone could edit code to ensure better performance etc. Divide and conquer works well when there are lots of people waiting to take up the challenge. With Google already backing this project, I’m sure they could quite easily co-ordinate this kind of software development. Rural communities could learn useful skills and in an idealized version earn royalties for their participation in the development of a large software app. People who are new to the process could learn form experienced users’ edits and improve their own abilities.

    I don’t know if this could actually work, but if it could it could improve the GDP and strain on resources of countries like SA or India. Imagine the powerful superorganism created when every child in China has a laptop and ready access to information…


  3. This sounds brilliant! Cell phones have already had a huge economic impact on Africa and I believe some vast number (like 300 milliion?) Chinese have cell phones. Problem is that they cost lots, especially in developing countries where the infrastructure is expensive, and I have heard reports of survival expenditure on stuff like food breing diverted to cell calls. So your Skype idea is intriguing. It could be used by farmers to check on market prices, craftsmen to sell their labour, etc.

    On the education level there could be an application in adult ed too. I remember a project in the sixties that placed low cost audio tape recorders in villages as part of a theological ed project. Illiterate villagers gathered around and listened to the tapes, which were then replaced monthly. With these machines the material could be audiovisual and added to electronically.

    Business education could be another application. Two years ago the Sunday Times in Johannesburg ran a very popular course on starting your own business, with weekly text articles supported by web-accessed additional material. A fully web-based system could be edited to advise particular villages on what products to focus on and how to market them (marketing often being the key element preventing rural people from making a living from their labour). I’m leaving on Sunday for meeting in Lagos to establish an African Association of Business Schools, and will ask as I get the opportunity what the participants can think of that a networked $100 laptop could do to their work.

    I have often thought that we could do something large enough to have an impact if we had a way of networking a corps of community workers over a large area. It could work like this: The project trains unemployed people with initiative to earn a living from some craft (or, in this case, an IT skill as Rob suggests; or charging a small fee for phone calls and other services using the laptop), plus how to organise communities to turn their labour into a living. They are then sent back into their communities to be catalysts for development. The training could include useful community-development skills, literacy training, basic health training, civic information, etc. Access of the kind envisaged for these laptops would mean the training could efficiently focus on how to access and use information, rather than trying to convey all the needed nformation in advance (a largely hopeless ambition). They could link in to a network of knowledge and advice that could help them advise the villagers what crop to grow and how to grow it, or what other stuff to make; consult doctors about health issues; be warned about threats to health or safety; etc. The network would enable coordinators to keep in touch and support the field workers, and keep them current.

    Another use which our banks in SA are currently scrambling to provide as part of their obligations under the banking charter, is to provide unbanked people with the means to send small amounts of cash to relatives in other parts of the country. People working in the cities frequently maintain rural households. The problem is that even the new, cut-rate ideas are expensive when dealing with small amounts, because they require the bank to provide teller services. So a simple electronic banking system, perhaps based on a card system, could make the flow of cash from wealthier to poorer parts of the country more efficient. The implications for commerce are obvious.

    How to make it happen? There are currently resources available though the African Growth and Development plan, for example, which might be interested in supporting a pilot project. Schools would be an obvious exisitng network to work through, although they are often mired in bureaucracy and government interference. The alternative is to use an existing non-government network, like the churches, or one or more of the widely-spread health NGOs. They have the advantage of passion and flexibility. That would be on the community side. Then on the supply side, I am sure that there are thousands upon thousands of highly skilled young people like the readres of this blog, who would love to spend a year offering their IT and other skills to make it happen. A key element (which is why some global initiaitve with lots of money would need to be involved) is that for the network idea to work, sufficient infrastructure would be needed. At present a major constraint is simply the lack of bandwidth. I find that there are large numbers of enterprising internet cafes scattered around the African cities and even some rural areas I have been to, but that access is very slow and unreliable.

    Keep dreaming – could finally offer a way of bridging the digital divide and thus bringing the poorest of the poor back into the economy.


  4. Those are some very interesting ideas — thanks all! And Rob, thanks for the visit too!

    One quick comment: apparently the project has decided that they will ONLY make the laptops available to schoolchildren, via governments. The reasoning behind this is that it will hopefully make the laptops immediately identifiable as school supplies, and so reduce corruption and/or theft in the distribution of the latops.

    Of course, this means that adults will only be able to use them with children around, which might impact some of the ideas above. But also, once the technology exists, I imagine it will be relatively easy to roll out other models for other segments of the population.

    So yes, if anyone has any contacts of people who should be starting to talk about the possibilities available, let’s get the conversations going! The Lagos connection sounds interesting, enjoy the trip dad!


  5. According to a report on a recent press release, they are considering launching a $200 version for sale to the public. But I made all those rash comments above before actually reading their web site, which showed that much of what I had thought of was quite compatible with their vision at present. And they are much further down the track than I thought. Really exciting. It would take less than the annual US defence budget to supply literally every child in the world with a laptop at that price. Apart from the intended educational uses, imagine what that could do for things like tsunami warnings, tracking earthquake victims, healthcare, and such like.

    One of the Senegalese professors (where bandwidth is better than most African countries) wants to follow up the idea of adapting the idea for basic business education.


  6. Ah, it sounds like people are starting to run with the idea! Great news.

    In fact, it would take the annual US defence budget (including Iraq) to supply every person in the world with one of these computers.


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  10. Hi i am teacher form Australia , and am looking at buying one of these 100 dollar lap tops can you buy them now? . Thank you.. Anthony


  11. No, I don’t believe they’re finished yet. And in any event, they’ll need to be ordered in quantities of millions — so you’ll need to get your education department involved to get hold of one of them.


  12. Hello seller,

                 I am Mr Benedict Charles from UK,How are you for today, I will like you to know that i will like to buy your items and send it to my store in Africa.so i want you to tell me the shipping cost for those laptops and the total cost...
    Awaiting for your reply,


  13. Well, the shipping costs can be worked out once I know quantities. Costs will be $100 million per million laptops, plus 5% for me to negotiate with the people who are actually working on the laptops.

    But more seriously, they are not commercial products.


  14. Hi,
    I am Henok T. Wotango from South Africa. As I am a graduate student in one of the colleges here, I was looking ways to get lap top computer for my course work I came across your address. So would you please give me information how on can I buy your $100 lap top?
    Thank you


  15. Seriously, it’s (a) not mine, (b) only available to governments in quantities of millions, and (c) aimed at children.

    As it says in my article above.


  16. Hello, I read a book recently that got me thinking about laptops…that wouldn’t be so bad except for one little problem…..I CAN’T STOP!!!!!! It’s horrible (like this computer) and I wan’t one for myself. I have one problem though. I’m limited to a budget of about $100. Please, PLEASE tell me I can buy a $100 dollar laptop and where. I am begging you. I AM GOING CRAZY!!!!!!!!

    I won’t stop until I find one,


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    4.A higher level of confidant in both life and ministry in Jesus.
    5.Greater opportunity for ministry satisfaction with so many open doors for mission to the lost.
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