Sizing Up a $100 Laptop

The One Laptop per Child program aims to provide low-cost laptops to people in the developing world. New York Times technology columnist David Pogue gives Deborah Amos his review of the super cheap laptop.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

What's dustproof, rainproof, and shiny green? I bet you didn't guess a laptop.

And that's the topic of our Monday focus on technology. It's the fabled $100 laptop developed by the non-profit One Laptop Per Child for kids in developing countries. It's been talked about for three years, and early next month it goes on-sale in this country.

We called up David Pogue, technology columnist for the New York Times, as we often do. Welcome.

Mr. DAVID POGUE (New York Times): Thank you.

AMOS: You've been testing out the laptop. So tell us, what is it like?

Mr. POGUE: Well, for a $200 laptop, or less, it's incredibly impressive. It's loaded. You know, video camera, microphone, card slots, game controllers, a screen that rotates and then folds back into the laptop to form a tablet for reading, battery that goes six to 24 hours on a charge, depending on what you're doing.

AMOS: Wow.

Mr. POGUE: It's pretty astonishing.

AMOS: The laptop, I read also, has a feature called mesh networking so that the laptops recognize each other. Tell us a little bit more about why they put that in.

Mr. POGUE: Every aspect of this laptop has been designed, of course, for developing countries and poor children and schools without a lot of infrastructure. So if there is one of these laptops that has an Internet connection, it magically broadcasts that signal to all the others in the classroom.

If there is no Internet connection, then this mesh network thing happens automatically, which is that all the laptops see each other. That comes into play because all the programs on this thing - the word processor, the painting program, the music composition programs - all of these things are sharable. So if I'm working on a word processing document, I click share, and then anyone else in the class can watch what I'm doing and even participate with me.

AMOS: Now, One Laptop hasn't been able to do one thing - and that's to get the price down to a hundred bucks. It's pretty close. Next month they're going to start selling two of these laptops for $400, but explain what the catch is.

Mr. POGUE: Well, this is a way they want to get the whole thing jump-started. You pay $400, you get one laptop by Christmas - along with the nice tax deduction - and they send another laptop on your behalf to a poor kid in another country.

AMOS: This sounds like a great idea, but I have heard critics in Third World countries say, you know, what we really need are books and pencils, not a hundred dollar or a $200 computer. What does One Laptop have to say to that?

Mr. POGUE: Part of the problem overseas is getting these kids to go to school, and they have shown in these trials - they have 15 trials going on all around the world - kids actually come to school and stay at school when these laptops are around.

AMOS: There's one significant fact about these computers: They don't use Microsoft Word or any of the programs that we're used to. They use a Linux open source software, not so familiar to American users. Does that make any difference?

Mr. POGUE: I don't believe so. That's certainly one of the criticisms. But are you saying, oh no, they'll never get a job on Wall Street because they won't know PowerPoint? I don't see it as a realistic concern, considering what these kids are facing. It's still menus. It's still point and click. It's still a computer, and the skills are transferable to Mac-OS10 or Windows or whatever will be in vogue when these kids are ready for the business world 15 years from now.

AMOS: One Laptop isn't the only company in this race. Intel launched its own computer. It's called Classmate PC, and they hope to sell that one for less than $200. Why are these companies putting so much effort into this market?

Mr. POGUE: Moolah. They think, oh my gosh, two billion people who don't have computers yet - this is a market. But the One Laptop Per Child people say, look guys, the point is learning, the point is helping these kids and fostering education. We'll sell and distribute anyone's laptop that fulfills this mission. It doesn't have to be ours.

AMOS: David Pogue writes about technology for the New York Times. He's the author of many of the Missing Manual technology guides. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. POGUE: My pleasure.

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