The $100 laptop computers that Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers want to get into the hands of the world's children would be durable, flexible and self-reliant.
The machines' AC adapter would double as a carrying strap, and a hand crank would power them when there's no electricity. They'd be foldable like traditional notebook PCs, and carried like slim lunchboxes.
For outdoor reading, their display would be able to shift from full color to glare-resistant black and white.
And surrounding it all, the laptops would have a rubber casing that closes tightly, because "they have to be absolutely indestructible," said Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT Media Lab leader who offered an update on the project Wednesday.
Negroponte hatched the $100 laptop idea after seeing children in a Cambodian village benefit from having notebook computers at school that they could also tote home to use on their own.
Those computers had been donated by a foundation run by Negroponte and his wife. He decided that for kids everywhere to benefit from the educational and communications powers of the Internet, someone would have to make laptops inexpensive enough for officials in developing countries to purchase en masse. At least that's Negroponte's plan.
Within a year, Negroponte expects his nonprofit One Laptop Per Child to get 5 million to 15 million of the machines in production, when children in Brazil, China, Egypt, Thailand, South Africa are due to begin getting them.
In the second year — when Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hopes to start buying them for all 500,000 middle and high-school students in this state — Negroponte envisions 100 million to 150 million being made. (He boasts that these humble $100 notebooks would surpass the world's existing annual production of laptops, which is about 50 million.)
While a prototype isn't expected to be shown off until November, Negroponte unveiled blueprints at Technology Review magazine's Emerging Technologies conference at MIT.
Among the key specs: A 500-megahertz processor (that was fast in the 1990s but slow by today's standards) by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and flash memory instead of a hard drive with moving parts. To save on software costs, the laptops would run the freely available Linux operating system instead of Windows.
The computers would be able to connect to Wi-Fi wireless networks and be part of "mesh" networks in which each laptop would relay data to and from other devices, reducing the need for expensive base stations. Plans call for the machines to have four USB ports for multimedia and data storage.
Perhaps the defining difference is the hand crank, though first-generation users would get no more than 10 minutes of juice from one minute of winding.
This certainly wouldn't be the first effort to bridge the world's so-called digital divide with inexpensive versions of fancy machinery. Other attempts have had a mixed record.
With those in mind, Negroponte says his team is addressing ways this project could be undermined.
For example, to keep the $100 laptops from being widely stolen or sold off in poor countries, he expects to make them so pervasive in schools and so distinctive in design that it would be "socially a stigma to be carrying one if you are not a student or a teacher." He compared it to filching a mail truck or taking something from a church: Everyone would know where it came from.
As a result, he expects to keep no more than 2 percent of the machines from falling into a murky "gray market."
And unlike the classic computing model in which successive generations of devices get more gadgetry at the same price, Negroponte said his group expects to do the reverse. With such tweaks as "electronic ink" displays that will require virtually no power, the MIT team expects to constantly lower the cost.
After all, in much of the world, Negroponte said, even $100 "is still too expensive."