MIT to launch $100 laptop prototype in November

The MIT Media Laboratory expects to launch a prototype of its US$100 laptop in November, according to Nicholas Negroponte, the lab’s chairman and co-founder. The facility has been working with industry partners to develop a notebook computer for use by children in primary and secondary education around the world, particularly in developing countries. The laptops should start appearing in volume in late 2006.

“In emerging nations, the issue isn’t connectivity,” Negroponte said at the Emerging Technologies Conference on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Cambridge campus Wednesday. “That’s not solved, but lots of people are working on it in Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, etc. For education, the roadblock is laptops.” He and his colleagues believe that equipping all children in the world with their own laptop will greatly improve the level of education and help stimulate children to learn outside of school as well as in the classroom.

The lab expects to unveil a prototype of the $100 laptop at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) on Nov. 17, according to Negroponte. The WSIS is due to be held in Tunis, Tunisia, from Nov. 16 to Nov. 18. He showed slides of the prototype at the MIT event.

The 500MHz laptop will run a “skinny version” of the open-source Linux operating system. It will have a two-mode screen, so it can be viewed in color and then by pushing a button or activating software switch to a black-and-white display, which can be viewed in bright sunlight at four times normal resolution, according to Negroponte. He estimates the display will cost around $35.

The laptop can be powered either with an AC adapter or via a wind-up crank, which is stored in the housing of the laptop where the hinge is located. The laptops will have a 10 to 1 crank rate, so that a child will crank the handle for one minute to get 10 minutes of power and use. When closed, the hinge forms a handle and the AC cord can function as a carrying strap, according to Negroponte. The laptops will be ruggedized and probably made of rubber, he said. They will have four USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports, be Wi-Fi- and cell phone enabled and come with 1GB of memory.

Each laptop will act as a node in a mesh peer-to-peer ad hoc network, Negroponte said, meaning that if one laptop is directly accessing the Internet, when other machines power on, they can share that single online connection.

The lab will initially target Brazil, China, Egypt, South Africa and Thailand, according to Negroponte, as well as the U.S. state of Massachusetts, which has just committed to equipping every schoolchild with a laptop. Negroponte hopes to start mass production of some 5 million to 15 million laptops for those markets towards the end of 2006. Come December 2007, he estimated production of the laptops at between 100 million and 150 million, three times the number of annual shipments of commercial laptops.

Negroponte launched a nonprofit spin-off from the lab to spearhead the development of the notebook at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. The nonprofit is called One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC. The lab and OLPC are working with a number of key partners including Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Google Inc., News Corp. and Red Hat Inc. on developing the laptop, according to Negroponte.

“I’ve told the governments that our price will float and go down over time,” Negroponte said. “$100 is still too expensive.” Each government will need to pay for one million laptops in advance to ensure the lab and its partners can achieve the necessary scale to persuade companies to mass produce the machines, he added. He didn’t provide any further details on how exactly the vast number of machines will be produced and shipped to their final destinations.

The laptop can be used in a variety of ways as a computer, an electronic book, a television and a writing or drawing tablet, according to Negroponte.

One issue the lab is particularly sensitive to is the grey market for computers, Negroponte said. “It’s a big deal for us whether laptops vanish in customs or are stolen,” he said. “We want to have a machine that’s so distinctive it’d be like stealing a post office truck.” The lab is even thinking of having each child’s name engraved on each laptop as an additional theft deterrent, he added.

Another obstacle is the online access schoolchildren in repressive regimes will gain. “I do tell governments we’re selling you a Trojan horse,” Negroponte said, adding it’s really up to the children as to what they access from the Internet. The huge issue he sees with the technology is how education curricula around the globe will change in response to the introduction of the laptops and Web access. “It’s something that will take decades to sort out properly,” he said.

As to children accessing pornography, the lab is working on how best to block harmful online content, he said. However, Negroponte asks people not to blame the medium. “Pornography uses the printed page, but [Johannes] Gutenberg [the inventor of the printing press] isn’t getting much flak,” he quipped.

MIT Media Lab has been involved in a number of initiatives to provide schoolchildren with laptops in the past, in Senegal and in Costa Rica and Negroponte has his own projects in Cambodia, but this is the first global push for the lab with a mobile computer developed from scratch.

Updated 10:12 AM 09/29/05: Added image of laptop.

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