I recently attended a technology awards event in Boston where Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of One Laptop Per Child, showed a working model of the $100 laptop.
From a humanitarian outlook, there is a lot to like about this project: Putting a powerful tool like a laptop in the hands of disadvantaged children can go a long way toward improving the chance that these young people will better themselves and their communities. The whole concept is basically an educational application of the old adage "teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."
But the $100 laptop (which will more likely be the $135 laptop initially, with the potential in coming years to become the $50 laptop) also appealed to my geeky side. Once you get past the bright orange color and the Fisher Price-like styling (see photo), it is a pretty cool piece of machinery.
The hardware specs of the machine—a 500MHz CPU, 128MB of RAM and a 512MB flash disk—probably wont blow you away, but the $100 laptop could teach vendors of business-oriented laptops a lesson or two in other areas.
The first is in power consumption. The $100 laptop is designed to use less than 2 watts of power and can be run with the turn of a crank or push of a foot pedal attached to its power supply. Now, compare this with most modern laptops, which typically use 20 to 25 watts of power.
Putting aside the crank and foot pedal, a $100 laptop connected to a standard laptop battery could potentially last 10 times as long as a regular laptop on a single charge.
The $100 laptop has some other interesting abilities, such as built-in wireless mesh networking, which lets each laptop connect to other laptops. The $100 laptop will even continue to work as a wireless mesh router when it is powered down.
The $100 laptop also can be folded into a slate form factor and is designed to be rugged and easily portable, and its screen will be visible even in direct sunlight. (How come I cant find a laptop that does that?)
Maybe you think that all of this isnt relevant to most business applications. But think about this: One Laptop Per Child is currently working with seven (and counting) governments to get the $100 laptop deployed in their respective countries. Negroponte said that his group expects to deploy 100 million laptops in the first year.
But what if these estimates are way off? What if the group deploys only half that number? Well, 50 million is still more than all other laptops sold in a year combined.
If you ask me, 50 million to 100 million units of any product will have an impact. Microsoft has publicly criticized the $100 laptop, but it is reportedly working on a Windows version that will run on it. And, once the buying community sees that systems can be developed that cost less and are more efficient, the pressure will be on laptop makers to deliver in kind—especially when it comes to power consumption.
I also hope that the simple scope of the $100 laptop will have an impact on the options that manufacturers give us.
Sure, its hardware specs are modest, but the $100 laptop will easily let users surf the Web and handle e-mail and office tasks—in short, it will basically support 99 percent of the tasks that anyone needs a laptop to perform. And I think a lot of companies and road warriors would be interested in a rugged, low-power, portable computing system for less than even $500.
I know I would be interested in getting a system (or two) built as effectively as the $100 laptop. To be honest, it sounds a lot more useful and attractive to me than a glorified portable gaming and entertainment system that has all the corporate usefulness of a folded paper swan.
I think we in the corporate technology world should welcome and support the One Laptop Per Child initiative—both from the feel-good aspect of it (and Im sure as the program progresses there will be opportunities for the technology community to donate to and assist it) and for the technology changes it brings to the table.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.