Quanta Building MITs $100 Laptops

Quanta Computer has been selected to design and build the $100 computers planned as part of M.I.T.'s One Laptop per Child initiative.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technologys Media Lab has announced that Taiwanese device maker Quanta Computer Inc. has been selected to design and build the $100 computers planned as part of the schools One Laptop per Child initiative.

After reviewing design submissions from several different companies, the OLPCs Board of Directors said it selected Quanta in part because the computer maker, which builds some PCs sold by Hewlett-Packard Co., promised to devote "significant engineering resources" to the project from its Quanta Research Institute. Under the companys current plans, it expects to deliver the laptops to market by the fourth quarter of 2006.

OLPCs goal is to sell the laptops to governments worldwide who will in turn distribute the machines to schoolchildren in impoverished regions to use in their classes and take home. The computers are expected to come in a brightly colored, rugged chassis in order to protect them from damage and discourage theft, and will run Linux with a 500MHz processor and 1GB of onboard memory, based on a design proposed by OLPC earlier this year.

The devices will also feature a hand-cranked power system, which will augment conventional batteries and electric current adaptors, in order to allow for use of the laptops in remote areas. The computers will also offer wireless mesh networking to allow Internet access to multiple machines from one connection. By using Linux software tuned to work in individual nations, the machines will also eliminate the need for two-thirds of the software on traditional laptops, MIT Media Lab professor Nicholas Negroponte has said.

OLPC reported that pricing for the devices will begin at roughly $100 with plans to lower that figure over time, even as the computers add more features. The group said it initially hopes to introduce between 5 million and 15 million laptops in large-scale pilot projects in seven countries (China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand) with one million computers slated for each of these nations.

The announcement of Quanta as the manufacturer for the $100 laptop program was not completely unexpected. In April, the hardware maker signed a five-year, $20 million joint research pact with M.I.T. aimed at creating designs for next-generation computing and communications devices.

The initiative also plans to create an additional "modest" number of machines to send into developer communities in a number of other countries, and Quanta may build a version of the laptop for commercial markets.

Despite winning praise from many people, the $100 laptop effort has attracted some criticism from some industry experts who say the current device design is too simple. Earlier this year, former Intel Chief Executive Craig Barrett predicted that there will not be a significant market for the devices because they do not offer enough features.

In announcing the Quanta deal, Negroponte said that OLPC has overcome some of those criticisms. "Any previous doubt that a very-low-cost laptop could be made for education in the developing world has just gone away," Negroponte said in a statement.

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"Quanta would like to contribute its laptop technologies to the future success of the project, in hope of affording children worldwide with opportunities not only to close the digital divide, but also to bridge the knowledge divide," Quanta Chairman Barry Lam said in a statement. "This project signifies a new stage and scale for the laptop industry by including those children never before considered to be laptop users."

Negroponte had said previously that the program could change whole communities, making the benefits of information technology apparent to far many more people than the schoolchildren who receive the laptops. In doing so, the devices will help cultures embrace new forms of learning that go beyond the institutional educational systems, he said.

"Its not just about the laptops, its more about the influence of the entire program," Negroponte said at an M.I.T. conference in September. "This is not teaching as we know it; only part of our learning comes from teaching. Much of it comes from curiosity. These are tools that can help cultivate that learning process."

A significant part of that larger effect will come from the fact that the laptops will go home with children at night, allowing their families and friends to see how the devices work, and what they have to offer, he said. In some towns where the group has researched distributing the machines it found whole families gathered around the laptops at night because the device represented the brightest source of light in their homes.

Despite the fact that the computers will be sent into some of the poorest communities on the planet, the group only expects to lose 1 percent to theft. Negroponte contends that social forces, such as adults being seen misusing one of the brightly colored machines, will dictate that people are careful with the devices and discourage criminals from taking them.

Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Brightstar Corp., Google Inc., News Corp. and Red Hat Inc. are other partners involved in the OLPC program.

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