In a rural Cambodian village where the homes lack electricity, the nighttime darkness is pierced by the glow from laptops that children bring from school. The students were equipped with notebook computers by a foundation run by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte and his wife Elaine.
"When the kids bring them home and open them up, it's the brightest light source in the home," said Negroponte. "Parents love it."
Negroponte and some MIT colleagues are hard at work on a project they hope will brighten the lives and prospects of hundreds of millions of developing world kids. It's a grand idea and a daunting challenge: to create rugged, Internet- and multimedia-capable laptop computers at a cost of $100 apiece.
That's right, the price of dinner for four at a moderately priced Manhattan restaurant can buy a Third World kid what Negroponte considers an essential tool for making it in the 21st century.
The laptops would be mass-produced in orders of no smaller than 1 million units and bought by governments, which would distribute them.
Ambitious projects to bridge the digital divide in the developing world at low cost have had a shaky track record. Perhaps the best example is the Simputer, a $220 handheld device developed by Indian scientists in 2001 that only last year became available and isn't selling well.
But Negroponte and MIT colleagues Joe Jacobson and Seymour Papert aren't deterred. For one, three corporate partners have committed an initial $2 million apiece to the initiative and pledged to serve as suppliers for the "one laptop per child" project: Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Advanced Micro Devices Inc., which will bring expertise in processors; "Do No Evil" search engine king Google; and News Corp., Rupert Murdoch's media company with global satellite capabilities.
The mission: to make laptops as ubiquitous as cell phones in technology-deprived regions. Negroponte's pitch: The cost of a laptop comes in far lower than a child's textbook expenses for the computer's lifespan.
"It's a way of having the children be the agents of change," Negroponte told The Associated Press. "They bring the device home, and then the parents look over their shoulder." He thinks it's extremely important that individual children own laptops; it will ensure they'll be well-maintained.
In design and function, Negroponte wants the $100 laptop to "be so close to the current laptops as to be nearly indistinguishable," but acknowledges that the machine will have a relatively slow processor and modest storage capacity paired with barebones software.
The biggest challenge, he says, is designing a display that doesn't put the price out of reach or drain the battery too quickly.
Details are still being worked out, but here's the MIT team's current recipe: Put the laptop on a software diet; use the freely distributed Linux operating system; design a battery capable of being recharged with a hand crank; and use newly developed "electronic ink" or a novel rear-projected image display with a 12-inch screen. Then, give it Wi-Fi access, and add USB ports to hook up peripheral devices.
Most importantly, take profits, sales costs and marketing expenses out of the picture. "The technology challenge is real, and you need to make some breakthroughs, but most of the money is saved in other ways," said Negroponte, who pitched the project in January at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, the annual confab of global powerbrokers.
Negroponte has also met with Chinese and Brazilian officials to discuss expected orders and production in those countries, which would create local jobs. Two prototypes have been built, and test units could be shipped by the middle of next year. The project would essentially be nonprofit, with about $90 covering hardware for each computer and an extra $10 for contingencies or a small profit margin depending on how each government's order is structured.
Answer to digital divide?
Yet even if all those hurdles are surmounted, some question whether a $100 laptop project is the answer to bridging the global digital divide. "Even if you give the laptops out for free, Internet access and even electricity are huge problems," said Marc Einstein, an analyst with Pyramid Research Inc., a Cambridge-based telecommunications consulting firm.
Negroponte and Co. have part of that solved, at least in theory: Out of the box, the $100 laptops will be able to communicate with one another using peer-to-peer mesh networking. That doesn't directly solve the Internet or electricity problem, though.
Al Hammond, director for the nonprofit World Resources Institute's Digital Dividend project in Washington D.C., worries about customer support in poor, rural areas. "The key is to create something affordable and sufficiently robust to protect against voltage surges, against dust, and against being dropped, and against all the perils of the Internet," Hammond said. "Those things are more important if the nearest computer tech is three villages away and you don't have an air-conditioned office to work in."
Like Hammond, Andy Carvin, director of the Newton-based nonprofit Digital Divide Network, applauds the project's goals, calling an extremely low-cost, durable laptop "one of the holy grails of bridging the digital divide."
But he said increasingly sophisticated and versatile wireless handhelds may gain favor over laptops as the developing world's online tools of choice. "That's not to suggest we should not have an inexpensive laptop," Carvin said. "They're parallel tracks, and it's probably a healthy competition to have both."
The digital divide remains vast: The technology research firm IDC examined 53 countries and determined that a household in Canada was 131 times more likely to own a personal computer than one in Indonesia - hardly the world's least tech-oriented country.
The United States trailed Canada at No. 2 by that measure in rankings that examined computer use in countries that fall in the top third for advanced technology use.
Negroponte says his promotion of the $100 laptop project at the World Economic Forum meeting has helped it gain momentum. "People are now calling me saying, 'We'd like to participate, and not only can we participate, but we can do it cheaper, or we can create better performance in this laptop,'" he said.
"People are saying, 'My God, this is real."
Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.