$100 laptop moves closer

A prototype of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) $100 laptop is due to be unveiled shortly by Kofi Annan at the UN World Summit in Tunisia.

To produce a machine for under $100 is a very ambitious target. Indian developers have so far come close with a $200 laptop, and not-for-profit developers Ndiyo have also come up with the low-cost Nivo computer, but its use of a thin client approach to cut down on costs makes it more suitable for schools and cbyer cafes.

Nonetheless, the MIT believes its aim of a $100 durable laptop for kids is achievable and that such a machine would revolutionise the education of children in developing countries.

Having snubbed Apple’s OS X, the $100 laptop will be a Linux-based machine running on a 500 Mhz processor, and will be wi-fi enabled. It will feature an innovative full colour screen, which can be switched to black and white when viewing in bright sunlight. Where electricity is a problem, kids will be able to use a hand crank to provide power to the laptop.

Its rugged design is intended to ensure it can handle the rough and tumble that is part and parcel of kid’s lifestyles, with children in Brazil, China, Egypt, Thailand, and South Africa likely to be amongst those first to benefit.

To counter the relatively high telecommunications costs in some developing countries, the MIT says the laptop will make use of its own innovative peer-to-peer technology to enable machines to share Internet connections. What the $100 machine won’t have, however, is stacks of storage with the current spec set at only 1Gb.

So will MIT really be able to reach its ambitious target? Well it is attacking costs on three main fronts. Firstly, it has looked to cut costs by tackling software bloat and producing the innovative display for around $35 has also helped. Finally, the sheer intended scale of production – the aim is to ship 100 million to 150 million laptops every year by 2007- will also help MIT towards its target.

MIT is already close, having succeeded in whittling down the estimated costs to $110 per machine, according to MIT Media Lab's Chairman Nicholas Negroponte.

One important question remains, however. Coming from a rich western nation this might seem strange but will $100 actually be cheap enough to bridge the digital divide with the poorest of nations? Given that the average gross national income (per capita) in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa is below $300, providing a $100 laptop to a child suddenly seems like an expensive proposition for certain governments. Nonetheless, MIT should be applauded for its efforts.