Power Politics Overshadow $100 PC Concept

Opinion: The days of cheap energy can't be taken for granted anymore, making Negroponte's vision of a PC in every Third World home sound like a rich boy's dream. One machine per village, however, with mobile-phone peripheral access, is another matt

DAVOS, Switzerland—Nicholas Negroponte, wandering around this city, was trying to get people excited about the idea of a very small, very cheap PC, costing $100. A favor, if you like, for the poor countries at the World Economic Forum, from the rich.

Nothing wrong with the idea, as another delegate to the WEF (World Economic Forum) pointed out last week.

But Wenchi Chen, founder and president of VIA Technologies, knows a bit more about small, cheap PCs, perhaps, than the MIT Media lab chief, and he pinpointed the flaw in Negropontes pitch quickly enough. Its power.

Ive been amazed at how few people in the First World really understand how important it is that PCs dont chew up wattage like an elephant munching hay. Weve gotten so used to having cheap energy that we honestly dont realize we are paying to charge our mobile phones.

You can cure yourself of this blindness simply enough. Check out any online store for something such as the Maxxima hand generator, and then try it. Just try generating enough charge in your cell phone for a five-minute conversation. It really isnt funny; its hard work for little result. And so now, try to imagine generating the power to run a 75W personal computer.

Chens point at the WEF was simple: All of the things we are hoping to harness the personal computer to depend on power. "Even if we built a nuclear power station a day for the next few years, we wouldnt have enough to drive all the PCs were hoping to build," he warned.

Naturally, VIA has an axe to grind: It has focused its technology, as have Transmeta and ARM, on the power budget. But the days of cheap energy cant be taken for granted anymore, and within a decade, it may be that even we in the West will have to share the Third Worlds concern with power budgets.

Whether we can have cheap energy or not, the remote, rural communities of Africa and China dont have the sort of revenue that would let them put a computer such as the Media Center in every home. And I think thats where Negropontes vision exposes its Achilles heel: Hes said the minimum order for his $100 PC would be a million.

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