This article from the Gaurdian suggests where the price of computing may go within the next decade.
Negroponte, founder and director of the MIT’s Media Lab, has long had an interest in providing information and communications technology (ICT) to developing countries. He has worked in Senegal, Costa Rica, India and, most recently, Cambodia, where he and his wife Elaine set up a school – the Elaine & Nicholas Negroponte School – to teach English and IT to schoolchildren. Their son also joined them and installed satellite and Wi-Fi links to connect the 25 Panasonic ToughBooks the children had been given.
Having seen the changes that can be wrought with a bit of IT infrastructure, Negroponte wants to do more to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor by providing inexpensive computing to schoolchildren across the developing world. Google and chip maker AMD have committed $2m each to the project, and the MIT team is talking with Samsung, Motorola and News Corporation. They hope to have the first working prototype ready by September 1 and samples by the end of the year.
“Laptops, as we know them, are a luxury,” agrees Negroponte. “Education is not. At $100, this is about learning and exploration, not giving kids costly tools and toys. Almost anything, from healthcare to food to birth control, can be addressed well, if not best, through education.
“The deeper divides are unequivocally proportional to education. Peace will never happen as long as there is poverty. Poverty can only be eliminated through education.”
Papert, one of the world’s leading theorists on child learning and inventor of the educational Logo computer language, says it is important to think about savings as well as costs. “Getting information online saves the cost of printing textbooks, and this is a case where what is cheaper is also better,” he says. “A much bigger saving is the cost of the books that every student should have been given but only rich families could afford … The computer can serve as a library, a laboratory and an art studio, saving the cost of these or making those that exist far more effective.”
Papert believes $100 laptops will also be invaluable resources for teachers, who constantly need to relearn. “The days when a future teacher could be trained to do everything that needs to be done in a career of teaching are over,” he says. “The world changes too fast.”
So what will the children get for $100, considering a half-decent laptop can cost 10 times that much? The goal is to provide a laptop that does everything a conventional laptop can. It will have a 12in colour screen and run Linux and other open source software. It will be Wi-Fi and 3G-enabled, with many USB ports. The laptops will not have lots of storage space, and will not be hooked up via a conventional local area networks, but will rely on mesh networks, where one child’s laptop will act as the print server, one the DVD player, and another the mass storage device.
The most expensive part of any laptop is the screen, so instead of using expensive LCD displays, the MIT team is developing a flat rear-projection screen. The other alternative is based on electronic ink, invented by Joseph Jacobson, also from MIT. Screens are expected to cost less than $30.
The price of software also needs to be addressed. Negroponte says PCs are “obese” with software and compares them to a large corporation, where half the people manage the other half. “A svelte Linux can do wonders for cost,” he says.
But surely a svelte desktop is cheaper than a svelte laptop? Desktops can be bolted down so no one can steal them, and you can repair one in a dusty shed with nothing more than a screwdriver. Laptops, on the other hand, need a clean environment, a lot of IT knowledge and special tools to repair them.
While Negroponte agrees that desktops are cheaper, he says mobility is important, especially when it comes to taking the computer home at night. “Recent experiments in Maine schools have shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one’s studies, as well as for play,” he says. “Bringing the laptop home engages the family.”
Similar experiments in the UK had to be abandoned when it was found that children who took laptops home after school became targets for muggers, but perhaps this will be less of a problem in rural China, which is Negroponte’s first potential customer.
This is not the first attempt to bring cheap computing to the developing world – many others have tried and failed. A $199 PC called iToaster was launched in June 1999, and flopped soon after. Netpliance’s iOpener did the same, although these were aimed at US users.
More recently, we have had the Simputer, a battery-powered handheld computer developed by the Indian not-for-profit Simputer Trust, and the Personal Internet Communicator (PIC), launched in October 2004 by AMD, which sells for $185. How many either of these will sell remains to be seen.
More successful are those who give reconditioned PCs to the developing world. British charity Digital Links International has provided 15,000 computers to Africa, a continent where less than 2% of children leave school having touched a computer. The charity collects second-hand computers from corporations, refurbishes them, and sells them to schools for about $45. This is done through local distribution partners who provide training and support.
“Obviously the ability to pay for ICT equipment is the largest barrier to access in developing countries, but there are other hurdles too,” says Kate Woode, corporate development and donations coordinator for Digital Links. “This includes electricity, as the supply is often erratic or nonexistent, and transport, as often poor road quality results in a significant percentage of machines being damaged en route.
“There is also a lack of trained technicians, especially in schools. Without sufficient training and support, IT equipment put in schools is often under utilised, and in some cases entirely redundant. Any meaningful roll-out of IT hardware must be accompanied by training to have any impact. This is even more important for open source software, as it is even more unfamiliar.”
But Negroponte is no ivory tower academic. He has had hands-on experience of providing ICT to schoolchildren in poor rural communities. To get over the power hurdle, the MIT team is looking into what it calls “parasitic power” – powering a laptop just by typing on the keys. The laptop will also be extremely robust – “almost military grade,” says Negroponte – and will be simple enough so that a child can repair it.
Flash memory will be used instead of a hard drive as it is much more durable. But Negroponte is unrepentant about using Linux and OpenOffice: “Open source is key because it’s perfect in keeping with the ethos of a $100 people’s computer.”
Geekcorps, a US not-for-profit organisation, builds Wi-Fi network relay stations in Africa using wire mesh, discarded plastic bottles and bamboo poles. They call them BottleNets. Wayan Vota, programme manager at Geekcorps, believes Negroponte is on the right track. “Laptops are portable, can be Wi-Fi meshed – each one is a transmitter and receiver of internet – and, with advances in technology, are getting smaller every day.”
However, Vota does not believe hardware costs are the show-stopper. “It’s the actual connection to the internet node or backbone that is expensive. In the developing world, you have entrenched monopolies that are loath to do much past rake in high margins on substandard bandwidth.”
Negroponte says a great deal of the problem is regulatory and monopolistic, yet he is optimistic that these monopolies are slowly being broken down. He adds: “I would love to see the World Bank make telecom deregulation a condition of loans.”
The MIT trio is exploring whether some laptops can be independent elements of a phased array antenna, thereby acting as a satellite dish. In other words, is it possible for a group of laptops to have satellite access without a dish? Whether or not there is connection to an internet backbone, each village or town where these laptops are deployed can have their own Lan, using a mesh network. In fact, Taipei is installing a 10,000-point mesh network based on these Media Lab ideas.
The $100 laptop is still a concept, with many hurdles to overcome. But with more than nine out of 10 people in the world having no internet access, let’s hope the MIT team can succeed where so many others have failed.