Saturday, June 03, 2006

More on the $100 Laptop

Whoops, looks like Slashdot accepted my submission on Ethan Zuckerman's story regarding the One Laptop Per Child project.

Hot on its heels is another story by CNET, this time featuring OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte. Negroponte says: "If I am annoying Microsoft and Intel then I figure I am doing something right." Amen to that.

I heard it first from Mark Shuttleworth about turning Moore's Law on its head. For the past twenty years, Moore's Law has been a self-fulfilling prophecy for the commodity PC industry. Keep the price of PCs constant, increase the capacity, and generate demand with new applications and savvy marketing. But what if all I really want are some basic functions just to get some work done? Can't we turn Moore's Law on its head, establish a baseline for functionality, and lower the price?

That's the thinking behind the OLPC project. Sure, it's looking more like the $150 laptop than the $100 laptop, but following the trends and the volumes that OLPC is talking about, the target price will certainly be achievable by the time OLPC rolls out.

Will the market beat OLPC to the punch by coming out with similarly-priced laptops? No. It is anathema to the current Wintel hegemony. The $100 price tag doesn't even begin to cover the Windows software license!

Furthermore, you have to think of its impact in terms of developing nations than plain old consumer sales. Distributing 100,000 standard PCs to underprivileged schools just won't do. The key to its success is its ubiquity and its individual throwaway price. The key to its success is putting it in the hands of children.

Just a couple of days ago, at the Negros Oriental IT Workshop, I heard an anecdote from a government official regarding computerization in Philippine public schools. Apparently, some generous company had donated PCs to this school he visited. But the PCs were all wrapped in plastic.

"Why are these computers wrapped in plastic?" he asked the teachers.

"Sir, so the children can't destroy the computers."

And there's the rub. Despite being 'free', these poor souls still think of a standard computer in terms of its actual market value, around P30,000 ($550), which is equivalent to three months' salary of a teacher in the Philippines. And the computers go unused.

On the other hand, no one has the same qualms about low-end cellphones. Kids use them. Even teachers use them. So really, we need the computer equivalent of a low-end cellphone. It should be cheap. It should be durable. And it should be placed in kids' hands. The OLPC is it.