August 31st, 2006
The first post I made here was about the significance of the MIT Media Lab and the fact that its founder, Nicholas Negroponte was taking a leave of absence to launch the noble effort of supplying $100 laptops to children in the Third World. In the six months since that post, the $100 laptop has moved toward becoming a reality. It has also started to affect the computer marketplace in beneficial ways.
Last month the prototype of the $100 laptop had its public unveiling at a computing conference. It is about the size of a hardback book, has an orange plastic shell with two pop up â€˜rabbit earsâ€™ that enhance wireless reception and a small, clear LCD display. It also will come in three other bright colors and has the ability to be powered by a crank. Other technical specifications include having dual displays, one in color and one in black and white that is sunlight readable. It will use Linux software, it has a 500MHz processor, 128 of DRAM and a 500MB of Flash memory. It does not have a hard drive, but it does come with three USB ports.
The first stage of the effort has been to find ways to assemble a useable laptop at a low cost. Finding less expensive ways to produce create and find innovative technology and stripping down software to its fundamentals has been the goal, and it seems as though this phase is drawing to a close. The next phases will be production and distribution of this life altering education tool. The goal is the production of 5 million laptops in 2007 and up to 150 million in 2008. Further, with help from its development partners the OLPC is hoping to lower the cost to $50 by 2010.
One Laptop Per Child is not about technology, but rather about empowering children, and others in Third World countries through the spread of knowledge and education. Negroponte states: â€œIt is an education project, not a laptop project.â€ This is a key point to be made about this marvelous venture: it is not a technology effort, but an effort to better the world with connectivity and education by the creation of a new technological tool. The goal for the next few years is to have governments of Third World countries, helped by foundations and corporate grants distribute these $100 laptops to as many people as possible. While the price may start out being more than $100, OLPC promises that future innovation, technological breakthroughs and scale production will be devoted to always lowering the price, rather than increasing complexity or adding features. The goal is ever lower cost of basic laptops to increase distribution and thereby provide windows to the world to millions who may otherwise be left without a chance to be educated and to improve their knowledge and therefore their lives. The One Laptop Per Child has a great, informative, inspirational web site that I urge all of you to check out.
If this core mission was all that resulted from the OLPC effort it would be one of the most visionary, compassion fueled, dedicated and significant education efforts in the world, and perhaps in history. What is interesting is that, in pursuit of this great goal, there has been a side development that has already started to change the world of personal computing in a way that will benefit all of us. Just the efforts of the OLPC group to find ways to lower costs, strip away complexity and find open source and collaborative ways to create this tool has brought challenge and resistance from the business powers that be in computer hardware and software. Vested interests are being challenged.
Negroponte has consistently stated his opinion that for too long technology companies have overloaded computers with features and software that has kept the prices up. [ Iâ€™ll bet that many of you are reading this on screens of computers that have features that you have never used, will probably never use, but paid good money to have] Simply by the action of showing that a laptop can be produced for such a low cost, the OLPC has affected the computer marketplace. Stripped down desktops and laptops have recently come on the market with price tags under $500. This is transformative as it will allow school districts, governments and foundations to afford wider distribution of computers. Anytime price points come down distribution goes up, so this will also help expand distribution in the general marketplace. In this new day of flash drives, external hard drives and connectivity it makes sense for this to occur.
Negroponte and the people at OLPC are not only going to change the world in a significant way, they are also bringing change to a major marketplace that affects all of us. I hope that there are many more noble and successful efforts like OLPC in the coming years, particularly in the areas of technology, communications and energy. It is essential if we are to successfully navigate the dangers of the next three decades.