Hundred-Dollar Laptop Draws Skeptics

Researchers at MIT have developed a laptop computer they say will cost $100 and could be used by millions of children in developing countries. Some critics, including Microsoft's chairman Bill Gates, say it's the wrong approach.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On Mondays, the business report focuses on technology. And today, a hand-cranked computer.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: The developing world might develop faster with a cheap, fast, durable laptop computer that does not necessarily depend on the power grid. If you could price it at about $100 dollars, that is, and make it available to school children around the world.

Researchers at MIT's Media Lab have a prototype of such a machine, and they're hoping to begin production by the end of the year. Reporter Susan Kaplan got a sneak preview at the Lab at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

SUSAN KAPLAN reporting:

The machine looks whimsical. Almost like a toy, and it's Kermit the Frog green.

Dr. MARY LOU JEPSEN (Engineering and Optics, MIT): Because it has nice connotations, right? Green means go, eco-friendly. And then we have pencil yellow on the crank and sort of the trim.

KAPLAN: A crank that Mary Lou Jepsen, one of the machine's designers, says can re-charge the computer's batteries. And while $100 dollars is cheap for a laptop in the U.S., Jepsen knows it's a lot of money in other parts of the world. She says the laptop could pay for itself.

Dr. JEPSEN: What we tried to do is make a laptop that's cheaper than textbooks, so that kids can get an infinite number of books and the functionality of a laptop and Google searches.

KAPLAN: And, Jepsen says, the computer will talk, double as a phone, and include a wireless chip that can connect to the internet, but also to other computers. Something called a mesh network.

Dr. JEPSEN: It hops from their computer to the next kid, to the next kid, to the kid that lives closest to the school, to the school, up to the internet, gets the information, hops back down into the school, through the others kids' computers, and back to the kid that did the Google search for the information; all at the speed of light.

KAPLAN: The new laptop is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of MIT's Media Lab. Negroponte says seven countries, including Brazil and India, have expressed interest in the machines. He says access to digital technology shouldn't be a luxury. He believes it's a right.

Dr. NICHOLAS NEGROPONTE (Senior Director, MIT's Media Laboratory): We're treating the $100 dollar laptop like a school uniform that's passed out.

KAPLAN: Negroponte says the machines can radically improve education, even in countries with little or no access to technology. He's seen the transformation firsthand.

He and his wife built a school in rural Cambodia and gave the children laptops. This is a village with no telephones or running water, but now students have broadband internet access at school.

Dr. NEGROPONTE: When they go home, their parents first of all, love it, because when they open the laptop, it's the brightest light source in the house. Their first English word is Google. They surf the net, and they learn English to do so.

KAPLAN: But there are some experts who question whether the $100 dollar laptop is a good idea--like Chris Morey, who worked for the International Aid Group OXFAM-Canada for more than a decade. Morey wonders about children who've never held a pencil using state of the art computers.

Mr. CHRIS MOREY (OXFAM-Canada): A kid goes home, they travel 20 kilometers in a, you know, in a donkey cart. Maybe they come back, maybe they don't, depending on what's happening with farming. How robust are these things? You know, it's a pretty radical change, and an expensive one, beyond the cost of the box itself.

KAPLAN: And this week, Bill Gates weighed in. He says the $100 dollar laptops are flawed, because they don't have hard drives and are too small to be useful. The machine is designed to run on Linux, so it won't include Windows.

Nicholas Negroponte says even without a hard drive, the new computers will run faster than the ones most of us use every day.

Dr. NEGROPONTE: The processor we're using, which some people have referred to as a gadget, is the processor that everybody used in their laptop in the year 2000. It just happens in the past five years we've been getting faster and faster processors, but the truth is our machines are working slower and slower.

KAPLAN: Taiwan-based Quanta expects to begin production of the new computers as soon as the end of this year.

And for those who don't like the computers' lime green color? There are new prototypes in sky blue and lemon yellow.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Kaplan.

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