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The Sub-$100 Laptop? 345

Vollernurd writes "The BBC is carrying this article detailing Nick Negroponte's plans to deveop and distribute a sub-$100 notebook computer. It would be very basic and stripped down and be used in developing countries as a way of distributing school books and such. Interesting to see how they will cut costs. Yes, it does run Linux." You can read another slashdot story about this machine when it was discussed on Red Herring awhile ago.
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The Sub-$100 Laptop?

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  • by gclef ( 96311 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:43AM (#11606569)
    I know the point of this is to be available in developing countries, but I can see this being very popular in "first-world" countries as well. (heck, I'd buy one) They may have to control how they're sold/distributed to keep the developed world from snapping them all up.
  • Quality? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:44AM (#11606584)
    The question is what kind of quality will these machines be? As far as I know, $100 does not get you a lot of high quality computer components.
  • Error in TFA? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:46AM (#11606614) Homepage Journal
    From TFA:
    "The second trick is to get rid of the fat , if you can skinny it down you can gain speed and the ability to use smaller processors and slower memory."
    Um, why is using slower memory a GOOD thing? Esp. if these people are going to be using it like a textbook, it's going to be much more memory intensive than CPU intensive......
  • Re:Quality? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by robertjw ( 728654 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:49AM (#11606650) Homepage
    Hopefully the "quality" of the components will be good. I wouldn't anticipate that the machines would be fast or powerful, but they better be rugged and dependable if they are going to ship to third-world countries. It will be a wasted effort if the machines are just broken all of the time.
  • by theVP ( 835556 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:49AM (#11606652)
    all I would end up paying for is the price of mobility, really. I could care less how it performs at a price like that. Definitely wouldn't use it for my primary system, but for a CHEAP mobile secondary, why the hell not?

    And I really like this guy's motivation for this. I think it just goes to show that technological gurus aren't money grubbers by nature.
  • by ArsonSmith ( 13997 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:50AM (#11606661) Journal
    This is awsome. I wish they'd make a for profit version similar to this in the $150-200 range.
  • by Evil W1zard ( 832703 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:50AM (#11606667) Journal
    Because a laptop is gonna fill a hungry stomach. For areas that are truly poor and need better education doesn't it seem a little over-the-top to give them laptops. How about sticking with regular old books (which are hard enough to teach without having to teach how to use a laptop on top of that) and using any extra money for things like oh... food, medicine, housing development, water treatment, agriculture, etc, etc, etc...
  • by 3point1415927 ( 838110 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:55AM (#11606708) how children in these countries will gain access to all of the other things you need to make a laptop into a real tool for learning (and while whether stuff like a printer and shiny pre-packaged educational software may or may not be necessary, I think we can all agree that they would at least need an internet connection, and some software that may not be available as freeware). While this is a great idea, I wonder whether he also has plans to set up a free or low-cost ISP in these areas. Or, barring that, I wonder whether these laptops will have CD-RW or floppy drives, and if so, whether the school will be provided with blank disks/CDs. You also have to wonder whether there's some way to provide teachers/parents in these areas with some sort of computer education, both so that they can utilise the computers intelligently in the classroom, and so that they can teach the children basic skills as well. I guess my point is: while this is a beautiful idea in theory, I wonder if it will have much effect without lots of additional support behind it.
  • by EvilTwinSkippy ( 112490 ) <[yoda] [at] []> on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:56AM (#11606715) Homepage Journal
    They may have to control how they're sold/distributed to keep the developed world from snapping them all up

    Why? If they sold well, you increase the volume produced, and the cost per unit decreases.

    While you would certainly want to regulate how many are sold in what market, assuming you design it once, and design it right, mass production is your friend.

    One item I think that should be introduced for portable, that would REALLY help the developing world, is repairability. There is no earthly reason why you can't design a laptop with an interchangable screen. And how about a standard battery connection system and package?

    These are all things that would be impossible to market to the developed world, but would be essential to the developing world. They simply don't buy into the idea that you throw something that costs many times their yearly wages away after 2 years.

  • Hmm... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by The-Bus ( 138060 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:57AM (#11606720)
    I sincerely hope the plan is not to outfit each student with one of these ridiculous things. Certainly I learned how to do everything without a computer, and had the honor of seeing computers/internet introduced into the classroom gradually through my education and can tell you that for the most part, they didn't do much.

    Most of the uses were for Power Point slides and other useless replacements of existing technology: a blackboard, an eraser, chalk, paper, pencil, etc. It has made research a lot easier, but not necessarily better. You can find stuff faster but is the time savings used to put together more convincing arguments or properly written materials?

    I think the $100 laptop is a good idea for schools to have in small numbers, say 1 per classroom at most. If it were up to me I wouldn't have any computers in school outside of a designated "computer lab" as I think they interfere with learning. They are a tool, but they are mostly applied the incorrect way.

    I would hope that for the severely impoverished we would worry about other things first, then the laptop. Although certainly it is worthwhile* $100 can buy a lot of books and learning materials.

    Negroponte says: "In China they spend $17 per child per year on textbooks. That's for five or six years, so if we can distribute and sell laptops in quantities of one million or more to ministries of education that's cheaper and the marketing overheads go away."

    Laptops certainly will have information more current, but laptops also need to be replaced every five or six years, or even less. A broken laptop is more expensive to fix than a broken book.

    I would say a better solution is to give each classroom a laptop, say, for every five kids. Then one kid can take it home each night and use it if they wish. But back to my original point, the teacher is the best tool, not the laptop.

    * I say worthwhile because the developing world can use more cheap tech. Read "Africa Rising []" or look at Ubuntu [] for example.
  • by fwitness ( 195565 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:57AM (#11606729)
    This gets brought up a lot. Yes, those people have more pressing, more basic needs. But if you can offer them *information* which is a good commodity. The best example I heard is the the farmer who would normally take his wares to the market and haggle price. Now he can use the internet to check other local prices, and decide whether or not the trip is even worth it (and for large amounts of items, and long trips, this isn non-trivial to farmers).

    People in 3rd world countries have 'basic' needs, but they also realize that there are some tools worth having. If a computer is going to cost you 5 years of income, then it's not an issue. But if you can get one relatively cheap, access to information can be extremely valuable.
  • Reduced costs (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:58AM (#11606731)
    The idea is that slower memory is cheaper. You get other advantages by going slower. A motherboard with a low fsb speed is WAY easier to design and build (perhaps locally). A slower clock speed means less battery consumption. That means you can use cheaper batteries.

    A simple computer with Win 3.1 used to run everything I needed. You should almost be able to implement such a computer on one chip these days.

    The thing I think will be a challenge is the $20 display.
  • by ek-1000-ek ( 701465 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @11:58AM (#11606737) Journal
    What about that?
  • Meanwhile, on eBay (Score:5, Insightful)

    by XxtraLarGe ( 551297 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:05PM (#11606800) Journal
    Looking at old PowerBooks (Pre-PowerPC), you can get several color screen PowerBooks for under $50. Many have a built in modem or Ethernet, you can run Adobe Acrobat to handle PDF's and it will also support Internet Explorer for web stuff. I am sure there are comparable Windows laptops selling for the same price or less. IMHO, we really should be making an effort to use older computers with proven hardware/software first before manufacturing newer computers for people who have never owned them before.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:10PM (#11606831)
    Or, I know, you could give them computers, which will help them manage their agriculture which will help them feed their people. Teaching a man to fish and all that.

    Seriously, why is it always "treat the immediate symptoms, but anything that might improve the situation long-term isn't helping?"

    Computers can help the local governments become more effective which would, hopefully, help them offer better services and better planning to improve the food situation.

    But that would involve a long-term view, and as we all know, only the short-term matters.
  • Re:Error in TFA? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by EvilTwinSkippy ( 112490 ) <[yoda] [at] []> on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:11PM (#11606843) Homepage Journal
    Smaller processors (with slower memory busses) don't require cooling fans, even in tropical climates.

    If you have ever worked in a factory or with a piece of remote instrumentation, cooling fans are the bane of your existance. They die quietly, and next thing you know you have random crashes, or worse, damaged components. And they have a great way of sucking dust, dirt, and other undesirables into the inner workings of the machine.

    Plus, you save on the cost of the fan, the cost of the connector for the fan, the cost of the holes in the PCB to run the pins to supply the fan, and can chop that much more power off the requirements for the supply. You also have one less part that needs to be assembled onto the final product.

    All of that can add up to a few hundred thousand dollars of savings over a production run of a few million computers.

    And for the record, a textbook program is NOT all that CPU intensive. There is not rule that says you can't scale the format to the capabilities of the machine.

  • by brian.glanz ( 849625 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:13PM (#11606856) Homepage Journal

    Point taken -- I was late to this and made a bad assumption.

    Now Coward, why not add something more to the conversation, than "hey, itsadupe"? My view stands, that this dupe is valuable -- while not intentional :)


  • by panth0r ( 722550 ) <> on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:14PM (#11606865) Homepage
    Maybe you should read the article... you might find something like, "He described the device as a stripped down laptop, which would run a Linux-based operating system." Try harder next time.
  • by Evil W1zard ( 832703 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:14PM (#11606867) Journal
    For me I have a lot of family who has worked in various third-world environments helping to try to bring about a better quality of life and I'm sorry, but bringing in laptops is not going to create a big impact. Remember that in most of these areas people are not growing up to be tech's, they are simply aspiring to maintain a family and have a decent life. I just think that money for laptops can be better spent. I am not saying keep them uneducated. Books and teaching materials that are given to these areas are not expensive (like the books we need to purchase here) There are more important things that are needed to sustain life for them. Now for areas that are considered third-world, but have a decent quality of life and can use this additional technology then I say go for it. (Yes there are varying degrees of third-world nations) But there has to be the architecture in place for those laptops to be useful (e.g. Internet connectivity and or some other form of bringing in new material and uploading it to the laptops, but if they are cheap laptops then space obviously becomes an issue as well)
  • by windowpain ( 211052 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:21PM (#11606924) Journal
    Dell, a big fat name brand is selling a $600 laptop. I recently read in TWICE (This Week in Consumer Electronics) that LCD screens are expected to drop 50% this year and another 50% in 2006 as increased production and yields forces prices down. So I'm guesstimating we should be below $200 for conventional laptops some time in 2008.

    I think a bigger challenge than getting cheap screens is making the machines rugged enough. Kids + Third World living conditions = MDL. (many dead laptops).
  • by chris_morgan47 ( 810629 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:21PM (#11606926) Homepage
    from the posting Yes, it does run Linux.
  • by EvilTwinSkippy ( 112490 ) <[yoda] [at] []> on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:37PM (#11607119) Homepage Journal
    I say design the whole damn thing to run off 12V DC. You can use a voltage divider (a simple circuit made with a network resistors in parallel) internally to create +/-5V and +/-3.3V. Simply provide a round, 2 contact plug that says "12 VDC In".

    The tricky part is the hard drives. They really want to see +/- 12V. I'm pretty sure, and please, someone correct me, that you could actually provide that by providing the +12V leg of the system with the straight power, and simply reversing the polarity of power coming in for the -12V. That is assuming that you can't find a hard drive that operates at 5V. I'm too lazy to research it.

    Couple that with a diode to prevent the system from being damaged by reversed wires, and a big Cap to handle power dips and surges and you will have a Joe-proof computer.

  • Re:cellphone.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by drew ( 2081 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:42PM (#11607184) Homepage
    except that cell phones are only cheap/free if you buy them with a two year agreement to speng $35 or more on your cell phone service.

    the cell phone i just got for free with my two year cingular service agreement costs almost $250 to buy without a service agreement, if you can at all.
  • by EvilTwinSkippy ( 112490 ) <[yoda] [at] []> on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:54PM (#11607322) Homepage Journal
    Way before power, you would have to deal with literacy. These laptops are not designed for the chunks of the world that still living a subsistanance agrarian culture.

    This system is designed for the chunks of the world that already have electricity and water and phones (at least in civic structures), but where $1200 is a fortune, and where a unit costing $100 that could replace 10+ textbooks costing $10, while providing some added functions, is economically advantageous.

  • by Jerf ( 17166 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @12:57PM (#11607369) Journal
    Looking at old PowerBooks (Pre-PowerPC), you can get several color screen PowerBooks for under $50.

    No, you can't. You can get a PowerBook for $50. You can not get millions of PowerBooks for $50, for two reasons, each sufficient on their own: One, there aren't that many on the market, the supply is finite and you can not "create" new used products at any useful rate, and two, when you raise the demand, you'll raise the price and they won't be $50 anymore. Economics 101.

    Besides, if you're going to create $100 laptops, believe me, you're not going to create a totally new laptop chipset, graphics card, processor, etc. These new $100 laptops will have vastly more "proven" technology than "a random used computer with an unknown history". Seriously, you'll spend more than $100 in time just vetting each machine, installing the build of software that works on this one (but not its neighbor), testing it to make sure it, ya know, works, and by the time all's said and done you're better off just making a new machine.

    Your sentiment is a good one for individuals ("he said as he posted to Slashdot from a house that still doesn't have a single GHz machine"), but it is not at all a valid criticism of Negroponte's plan, as it is 100% impractical for his needs on multiple levels.

    (I can almost read the replies to this in advance, and all I can say is, wishing doesn't make it so. People who wish to prove me, and the laws of economics, wrong, are invited to go ahead and actually try it. You won't be the first person to break themselves on the laws of supply and demand and the fact that labor can't be valued at $0.)
  • by ajs318 ( 655362 ) <`sd_resp2' `at' `'> on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @01:03PM (#11607450)
    Remember the Baygen Freeplay clockwork radio? That was meant for use in developing countries, but ended up becoming popular in Europe and the USA as a sort of fashion statement.

    Selling some units in the West would be a good way to recoup some of the initial investment {tooling costs &c.}; though it would not be at all wise to rely on this as a permanent subsidy, because (1) the novelty value will wear off eventually, and (2) the ultimate aim must surely be for the third world not to have to rely on handouts.

    Ideally the machines should be made using local labour as far as possible. Anything that creates jobs has to be good for the economy. One way would be to set up several production facilities in different countries, perhaps using money generated from first-world sales to offset initial building and equipment costs. By the time that particular source of revenue dries up, if the factories are managed properly they should already have begun making other products. Eventually, these developing countries might even become developed countries!
  • by vegetasaiyajin ( 701824 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @01:20PM (#11607722)
    You are right. I live in Venezuela.
    This is currently one of the latin american countries with the highest proportion of poor people.
    But there are many levels of poverty.
    There are persons who live in absolute misery (they cannot even afford food).
    There are poor who have very low paying jobs and probably cannot buy a 100$ computer. They can barely afford food.
    There are poor who can afford food, but cannot have much luxury. They ussually have TV, stereo, and live in very humble homes. They cannot afford cars (some may have very old cars) or better housing, but a large part of them could afford a $100 computer.
    There are poor who have somewhat better paying jobs (they might be successful street sellers or something). They cannot afford new cars or elegant housing, but they can certainly 100$ computers.
    There are many others who were previously middle class, but now are now poor. Many of them are probably still able to afford a $100 computer.
    There are also lower middle class people (poor by first world standards) who can afford $100 (and probably, slightly more expensive) computers.

    A $100 computer would certainly be a success here.

    I would also imagine that the people in your country and other developing nations who can afford a $100 laptop are not the poor but the middle class.

    No. Many poor people here (just not the poorest) could afford $100 computers (especially if it can be payed for in several monthly payments).
    Middle class people (a minority here) can afford much more expensive computers.
    In many other countries like Colombia, Brasil, Argentina, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay the situation is similar or, in many cases, better.

    Also, what happened in California was an anomaly.
    Well, it hasn't happened in my third world country. Yet you talk like it is the norm in all third world countries. It is not. (Perhaps it was an anomaly in the Dominican Republic. I don't know. I've never been there).

    Remember. There are many levels of poverty.

    Anyway, this discussion is a little offtopic, because IIRC these $100 can only be bought by governments in quantities of at least one million.
    Venezuelan government can easily shell out 200 or 300 millions and give away the computers if they want to.
  • by kingjosh ( 792336 ) on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @01:29PM (#11607851)
    At first glance . . . sounds like a great idea. We are polluting our landfills with old laptops that would perform at least as well as these units, and are already assembled. Doesn't it make more sense to recycle Pentium I and II laptops, place textbooks on them and then send them to the third world?

    It seems really bad to manufacture a bunch of already obsolete machines, that will wind up in the trash anyway! Why not reuse what we already have, at least for this cycle? Someone is making money here, otherwise recycling would have come to mind first.

  • You miss the point of the parent post. There are many situations where it would be nice to have a new (not refurbished computer from a thrift store--often there because several things are broken) computer that may be slightly underpowered but cheap, even in 1st World countries.

    And the point here is that not only would it be useful to make available in sub-Saharan Africa or rural India, but to inner-city youth of Liverpool or Los Angeles.

    As well, the point here is that you can make something like this available as a cheap commodity computer (avoid the feature bloat... this is to make a very cheap mass-produced computer), it will drive the price down even more simply due to economies of scale. Electronic components are particularly sensitive to volumes of production.

    In addition to simply having these computers around at the check-out stands of your local Wal-Mart, there will be a community of developers and tinkerers that will be using the equipment...many of which could translate and port some of the tools and concepts from more expensive equipment to a very cheap platform like this.

    There have been some amazing things done with some of the old 8-bit platforms, like the Comodore 64 and the Apple ][, including TCP/IP stacks and web browsers that would have been unheard of when they were originally put together.

    An example of a projct made for "an initiative only making sense in desparate circumstances" that has practical application in 1st World countries, The Freeplay Wind-up Radio [] is one of the most innovative projects to come up. This is a device that doesn't need an external power source, is very rugged, and works in areas of the world like Rwanda or Congo. It is also sold in the USA and Canada to people who want to keep an emergency radio available during a disaster, so you don't have to constantly check and see if the batteries are working.

    How come a laptop computer couldn't be any different?

    Or to paraphrase your Bill Maher quote a little differently, why not go from 10 to 11 when we can also help a country go from 0 to 1? It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.
  • I would beg to differ on that. The distribution costs in developed countries can be surprisingly low. I mean, the distribution costs for moving a ton of bannans from Central America to New York City or Kansas can keep the cost of down to less than a 50 cents a pound.

    The distribution infrastruction in many developing countries is almost non-existant, and I think you would find that the labor costs associated with selling items like this computer would be much more in Gambia or Rwanda than it would be in London, Paris, or St. Louis. The distribution costs are not the big issue here, but rather identifing what commodity CPU and memory chips could be had to make this a truly cheap computer.
  • by harrkev ( 623093 ) <> on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @01:57PM (#11608269) Homepage
    Like this will happen! Keep dreaming. This is about the third or fourth "sub-$100" computer that I have seen over the past three or four years. Guess how many I have seen over at CompUSA?

    To be sure, this is a noble idea. But the track record in this area is awful so far. I shall be quite surprised if one actually succeeds.

    Chips keep getting cheaper. This much is true. But the problem is that there is plenty of money to be made in DDR and DDR2. So, even if you imagine that old-fashioned EDO should be dirt-cheap, nobody is still making it -- precisely because it is so dirt cheap.

    And hard drives are more of the same. You still have the same voice-coil head actuation unit. You still have the same number of screws. A drive 1/2 the size of the ones at Best Buy is not 1/2 as cheap.

    I certianly hope that this does succeed, but I am not holding my breath.
  • by DLWormwood ( 154934 ) <`moc.em' `ta' `doowmrow'> on Tuesday February 08, 2005 @06:36PM (#11612091) Homepage
    How come a laptop computer couldn't be any different?

    If you had paid attention to the discussion here, you'd realize that the sub-$100 price is only possible in depressed economies. There's too much financial overhead to sell and manufacture goods in the Western world due to legislation and cultural baggage. Assuming you try to sell that same laptop outside the Third World, you'd likely have to charge $200-$300 for it to cover duties, distribution fees, and legal coverage. At that point, you may as well make a laptop that leverages the local infrastructure, since you are paying for it anyways. One of the points of Negroponte's initiative is to make technology that works with limited infrastructure, technology that can't compete in a market where other products use it.

    It sounds stupid, but in some ways, it's easier to help a homeless person in Africa than in the United States, if the homeless people I walk by everyday in Downtown Chicago is any indication. The change I and other others handout can only do so much. I've seen people stay at the same corner for years because the US economy is such that people can get wedged at the bottom, no matter what the various churches and civil groups try to do to unwedge them.

Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. - Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan