$100 Laptop Definition

The $100 laptop, also called the $100 computer or the $100 PC, refers to a project aimed at developing portable personal computers that would be sold at the equivalent of only about a hundred U.S. dollars.

This price would make computers and Internet access affordable for large numbers of people in lower income countries, many of whom have incomes equivalent to only a few hundred dollars per year. These computers are particularly intended to facilitate education among children in such countries, large numbers of whom not only have no access to the Internet, but also have only very limited access to textbooks, reference books and knowledgeable teachers.

This project was announced in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Labs. The initial goal of producing five million computers is being supported by five companies: Google, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), News Corp., Red Hat and BrightStar. Production could begin as early as the latter part of 2006.

In addition to being very inexpensive, these machines are also being designed to be well suited for the conditions that are typical of many developing countries, particularly in rural areas. Most importantly, they will be rugged and energy efficient.

The computer will be able to operate from any of three types of power sources: conventional grid current, batteries and a hand crank1. The crank, which will be attached to the side of each unit, will store power sufficient for about ten minutes of computer use for each minute that it is rotated.

The computer will feature a dual-mode LCD (liquid crystal display) screen. Not only can it can be viewed in color like a conventional LCD panel, but pushing a button or activating a software switch will convert it to a monochrome display that can be viewed in bright sunlight at four times the normal resolution.

The laptop will made from a particularly durable material, possibly a hard rubber. When it is closed, the LCD panel and keyboard will be hermetically sealed to prevent dust and water from damaging it. The keyboard section will double as a battery/generator compartment in order to facilitate compactness. Also, the main hinge will be usable as a handle when the unit is closed, and the AC power cord will also function as a carrying strap.

To keep the cost to a minimum, the computers will be essentially thin clients. That is, they will not have hard disk drives (HDDs) or PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) slots. However, they will have about one gigabyte of memory and will be moderately fast with a 500MHz (megahertz) processor. Also likely to be included will be four USB (universal serial bus) ports, a WiFi (i.e., wireless local area network) capability and mesh networking, which will allow a number of the machines to share a single Internet connection.

Perhaps the biggest factor in keeping the price down is the fact that there will be no cost for the software. This is because free software will be used. Free software is software that is both available to everyone at no cost and which anyone is permitted to use for any desired purpose (e.g., studying, modifying, extending, copying and redistributing). The operating system is expected to be slimmed-down version of Red Hat Fedora Linux. This use of free software will be good news for developers of commercial software such as Microsoft, as it will ease their concerns about so-called software piracy.

Another advantage to the use of free software is that the availability of all of its source code will allow students to study all of the intricacies of the operating system and application programs (which is impossible with commercial software), experiment with them, and perhaps some day write innovative and useful programs of their own. Source code is the version of software as it is originally written in plain text (i.e., in human-readable form) by a programmer in a programming language.

The pricing goal is to start at $100 and then gradually decrease the price as production costs drop with a rising volume of output. Although this computer is aimed primarily towards students in the developing countries, it is likely that its very low price will also result in a large demand by adults in such countries as well as by a variety of consumers in higher income countries. Moreover, its mass production and commercial success could also help bring down the prices of personal computers in general.

Critics might point out that this computer is primitive as compare with the typical personal computers that are now widely used in the higher income countries. However, it is important to keep in mind that it is still far more powerful than what was available even in the higher income countries until just a few years ago and that it is sufficient for most of the tasks for which personal computers are most commonly used (e.g., word processing, surfing the web and e-mail).

The timing of this project is very appropriate for several reasons. One is that the component costs are finally coming down to a sufficiently low level that the hundred dollar price goal is becoming increasingly realistic (or soon will be). Another is the growing interest in the use of computers for educational purposes by developing countries. A third is the increasingly widespread understanding of the advantages of free software and the growing acceptance, and even welcoming, of it.

1Although some people in the higher income countries are not aware of it, many thousands of villages around the world still do not have an electric power supply. And in many towns and villages which do have power supplies, the power is often erratic and unreliable.

Created March 17, 2006.
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