>From the Editor
By Jason Pontin August 2005
In May, at the Wall Street Journal's D3 conference outside San
Diego (an event attended by technology princes like Bill Gates
and Steve Jobs), I saw the elements of a computer that, if it
were built, would wonderfully improve the fortunes of poor children.
Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of MIT's Media Lab,
showed attendees the screen of the Hundred-Dollar Laptop, or
HDL. Beginning in 2006, he said, he would build 100 million to
200 million HDLs every year--and distribute them to the children
of the poor world. Many attendees had read about Negroponte's
idea and dismissed it as quixotic. Hearing how an HDL might be
built, seeing a part of it, and realizing the scale of the project
produced a rustle of delighted interest.
Negroponte recently wrote to me about what he hoped the HDL would
do: "Education: one laptop per child. Whatever big problem you
can imagine, from world peace to the environment to hunger to
poverty, the solution always includes education. We need to depend
more on peer-to-peer and self-driven learning. The laptop is
one important means of doing that."
Can a $100 computer be built? Maybe. Negroponte does not plan
to use three expensive components of conventional laptops: Microsoft
Windows, a traditional flat-panel screen, and a hard drive. Instead,
the HDL will be loaded with Linux and other open-source software;
its display will use either a rear-projection screen or a type
of electronic ink invented at the MIT Media Lab; and it will
store one gigabyte's worth of files in flash memory.
The HDL has a number of other, intriguing features. Since many
villages in the poor world do not have electricity, the machines
may be powered by either a crank or "parasitic power"--that is,
typing. Once turned on, HDLs will automatically connect to one
another using a "mesh network" initially developed at MIT and
the Media Lab. In the mesh network each laptop serves as an information-relaying
node. Households that have HDLs will be able to communicate with
each other by e-mail or voice calls.
Most importantly, Negroponte wants every mesh network to have
access to the Internet. The laptops will be loaded with Skype,
a communications application that provides free telephone calls.
Consider: the most forlorn parts of the globe might become part
of the wider world.
The most vital part of the plan is also, perhaps, the most challenging.
Internet access is not cheap in the poor world; infrastructure
is fragile and expensive to maintain. When I challenged Negroponte
about this "hidden cost," he conceded, "[This is] a very real
issue. We are looking at ways to spend less than $1 per month
At first glance, Negroponte's economics seem rational enough.
The HDL will not be sold commercially; instead, education ministries
and other government agencies will purchase it. Profits will
be very limited: merely $10 per machine for equipment manufacturers.
Of course, building a laptop for $100 demands what economists
call "economies of scale." Negroponte's pilot project requires
commitments for at least six million orders. So far, China has
expressed an interest in buying two million machines, and Brazil
one million. At least at first, the machines would be built in
China, where Negroponte has been talking to manufacturers.
Not everyone is convinced. On the record, few are willing to
cast doubt on such a worthy project, but some informed people
to whom I spoke wondered whether the Chinese were accurately
estimating the costs of manufacturing the HDL.
But most people, like D3's attendees, are excited by the prospect
of the HDL. Why? Because it represents something of a second
chance. Nothing much came of attempts in the late 1990s to address
inequities in the distribution of information technologies; bridging
the "digital divide" is no longer a fashionable cause. But the
divide is real enough for all that. According to the World Bank,
the number of Internet users per capita in the poor world is
40 percent that of the rest of the world. The rich world has
three times as many computers than the poor. For more than five
billion people, the Internet is only a rumor. Inevitably, poor
children are the biggest losers: their lives are pathetically
circumscribed. While they need clean water, food, and health
care, they also need education and more-expansive horizons.
Attempts to bridge the digital divide failed because there was
no bridge. Nicholas Negroponte's Hundred-Dollar Laptop could
be that bridge. Do you think the HDL can be built?
Write and tell me at <[log in to unmask]>
The MIT Media Lab is launching a new research initiative to develop
a $100 laptop—a technology that could revolutionize how we educate
the world's children. The $100 Laptop Project (HDLP) was announced
by Nicholas Negroponte, Lab chairman and co-founder, at the World
Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland in January 2005.
Here Negroponte answers questions on the initiative.
What is the $100 Laptop, really?
The $100 Laptop will be a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen
laptop, which initially is achieved either by rear projecting
the image on a flat screen or by using electronic ink (developed
at the MIT Media Lab). In addition, it will be rugged, use innovative
power (including wind-up), be WiFi- and cell phone-enabled, and
have USB ports galore. Its current specifications are: 500MHz,
1GB, 1 Megapixel. The cost of materials for each laptop is estimated
to be approximately $90, which includes the display, as well
as the processor and memory, and allows for $10 for contingency
Why not a desktop?
Desktops are cheaper, but mobility is important, especially with
regard to taking the computer home at night. Recent work with
schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across
all of one's studies, as well as for play. Bringing the laptop
home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have
been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among
other things, the brightest light source in the home.
How is it possible to get the cost so low?
* First, by driving the display cost below $25. We are exploring
five different options for this, looking at possibilities such
as projected image or roll-to-roll printed display. Projection
is the primary candidate at this time, and will bring the cost
of an approximately 12" diagonal display to below $20. Electronic
ink, invented at the Media Lab, is another option.
* Second, we will get the fat out of the systems. Today's
laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used
to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions
nine different ways.
* Third, we will market the laptops in very large numbers
(millions), directly to ministries of education, which can distribute
them like textbooks.
Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What's
wrong with community-access centers?
One does not think of community pencils—kids have their own.
They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be
used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A
computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore,
there are many reasons it is important for a child to "own" something—like
a football, doll, or book—not the least of which being that these
belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.
What about connectivity? Aren't telecommunications services expensive
in the developing world?
When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh
network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially
developed at MIT and the Media Lab. We are also exploring ways
to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost.
What can a $1000 laptop do that the $100 version can't?
Not much. The plan is for the $100 Laptop to do almost everything.
What it will not do is store a massive amount of data.
How will these be marketed?
The idea is to distribute the machines through those ministries
of education willing to adopt a policy of "one laptop per child."
Initial discussions have been held with China, where there are
approximately 220 million students (for which an order would
drive prices way down). In addition, smaller countries will be
selected for beta testing. Initial orders will be limited to
a minimum of one million units (with appropriate financing).
When do you anticipate these laptops reaching the market? What
do you see as the biggest hurdles?
Our preliminary schedule is to have units ready for shipment
by the end of 2006 or early 2007.
The biggest hurdle will be manufacturing 100 million of anything.
This is not just a supply-chain problem, but also a design problem.
The scale is daunting, but I find myself amazed at what some
companies are proposing to us. It feels as though at least half
the problems are being solved by mere resolve.
How will this initiative be structured?
The three principals at MIT are faculty members at the Media
Lab: Nicholas Negroponte (a founder of the Lab), Joe Jacobson
(serial entrepreneur, co-founder and director of E Ink), and
Seymour Papert (one of the world's leading theorists on child
Four other Media Lab researchers are also involved: Mitchel Resnick,
Tod Machover, Ted Selker, and Mike Bove.
Organizationally, MIT will work with a small number of companies
of complementary skills to develop a fully working and manufactured
laptop (50,000 to 100,000 units) in fewer than 12 months, with
an eye on building about 100 million to 200 million units by
the following year. Four initial companies who have committed
to this project are AMD, Brightstar, Google, News Corp, and Red
Hat. MIT will also work with the not-for-profit company One Laptop
Per Child (OLPC), as well as with the 2B1 Foundation.
Please note: these laptops are not in production. They are not—and
will not—be available for purchase by individuals.
Media Lab Press Liaison
email via our contact us page
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June 13, 2005