Wednesday, October 12, 2005

$100 LAPTOP: MIT's Media Laboratory's "One Laptop per Child" Initiative

While surfing around the Internet looking for items of interest I often come upon some really cool sites. I had been noodling around the African Technology Forum for the past day of so, and never noticed until just now a link titled: "MIT's $100 Laptop Initiative."

Since I have been working with two groups at Nabuur that are looking for computers, one for a village school and the other for an Internet Café' / Training Center I was naturally curious - actually, intrigued.

When I brought up the Home Page for the "$100 Laptop" the first thing at the top of the page was the following notice:

"Please note that the $100 laptops-not yet in production-will not be available for sale. The laptops will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives."

"Ummmm" I wonder, is this a good thing? Or will dealing with large government initiatives bog the effort down in bureaucratic red tape until computers become obsolete? But reminding my self of my "self improvement pledge" not to prejudge, I continued to read.

The project is the brainchild of the MIT Media Laboratory, which has created a new, non-profit association called One Laptop per Child (OLPC) to carry out the goal to develop a $100 laptop. The MIT Media Lab believes that this technology "could revolutionize how we educate the world's children." Being a "sixties child" anything that contains the word "revolution" (or any variation thereof) sounds good to me. So, now I definitely want to read further.

In January 2005 this initiative was announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland by Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founding chairman of MIT's Media Laboratory. And what the people at MIT's Media Laboratory are proposing is to develop a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop that will use innovative power - including wind-up. This computer is intended to be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data. They are also intended to rugged, be WiFi- and cell phone-enabled, and several USB ports. (The web site actually said "have USB ports galore," but I don't know how many a "galore" is. I guess just a few less than a "google.") Oh, and the current specifications are: 500MHz, 1GB, 1 Megapixel.

Making the point in its FAQ section of the web site the group states the case that these laptops will be "a window into the world" that will also be "a wonderful way for all children to 'learn learning' through independent interaction and exploration."

The FAQ page also states that providing these children laptops is a better solution than providing them desktops because while desktops are cheaper, mobility is important. The mobility of the laptop allows the child to take the computer home at night. Providing kids in the developing world the newest technology, really rugged hardware and innovative software meets the challenges presented by their environment and as well as their educational needs.

Citing the fact that "bringing the laptop home engages the family." The group gives the example of "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." The Media Laboratory folks also said that their recent work with schools in Maine has shown them the huge value of using a laptop across all of one's studies, as well as for play.

The group also points out that even if refurbished desktops were used, it would take at least forty-five thousand work years to make the same number of computers available. "Fourty-Five Thousand Work Years?" you say? Oh, perhaps I forgot to mention that they are planning on their initiative making ONE HUNDRED MILLION LAPTOPS available to children. MIT's Media Laboratory is not opposed to recycling of used computers; it just does not think that that would be the solution for their One Laptop per Child initiative.

Okay, so everybody is wondering: "How is it possible to get the cost so low?" For one thing, the Media Laboratory is planning on significantly lowering the cost of the display.

The say that their first-generation machine may use displays that will cost approximately $35 but still "can also be used in black and white, in bright sunlight, and at four times the normal resolution." They describe it as "a novel, dual-mode LCD display commonly found in inexpensive DVD players."

They also say that because two-thirds of the software in modern laptops is used to manage the other third that mostly does the same functions nine different ways there is a lot of fat in the systems. This is fat that they plan to eliminate.

The third way in which their plan will reduce the cost is by marketing these machines in very large numbers directly to ministries of education, with the idea that those ministries will distribute them like textbooks.

There may be some other questions running through your head. Questions like:
Well, what about the argument that the kids can access computers at community centers?
What about connectivity?
Can a $100 machine compete with a $1000 machine?
And what about marketing?
And how in the world will they build 100 million laptops?

But if I answered them for you, you wouldn't have the incentive to go to the $100 Laptop web site and look it over for yourself. But I guarantee that if you visit their web site these and other questions will be answered. And if you have any questions after that, they have a link where you can contact them.

So, all you folks that say you are serious about closing the digital divide, to take a look at this very, innovative idea at the $100 Laptop .

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