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11.17.2005

Thoughts on the $100 laptop


I've been thinking a bit about MIT Media Lab's $100 laptop project. It's been gaining a lot of press lately, and seems to be generating a mixed reaction. While most people seem to see it as a good idea, a lot are upset that third world nations will be spending the money on computers rather than food and medicine for the poor, or that in five years time there will be millions of these discarded in dumps around the world, slowly polluting the environment.

First, I think those who question the cost are greatly underestimating the potential value of the laptops. Not only do they allow for useful things such as etextbooks, collaborative lessons, etc. but they also help introduce people to technology who would otherwise have a limited exposure to it. Who knows how many kids will be able to grow up and get a job in an office, or working with computers because of these, rather than being stuck behind an ox or working a day laborer.

The other thing to keep in mind is that these are being sold in units of 1 million, so countries that are starving and lack medical care aren't going to be buying them right away. Those that will are larger countries with funds but a large underclass. Countries like China, Brazil, India, Mexico.

The one big mistake I think the project is making is in limiting the sale of the machines to governments only. With the press surrounding the program, there's going to be a lot of people who'd like one, for novelty value if nothing else. I know I'd like one, it would be fun to play around with it and see how moddable it is, not to mention that it would be a pretty kick-ass PDA at a low price. It's perfect for taking notes and writing with, using as an ebook reader, and perhaps even as a casual web browser. The storage is low, but if it could connect to a desktop or internet based storage system that wouldn't be a problem.

The sad thing is that by limiting it to government purchases only they cut off a potential source of revenue. Many people in the US and Europe would be happy to pay $150-$250 for one of these, and the profit could go lowering the cost for developing nations. Also, I think it's pretty likely that we'll see a bunch of these for sale on eBay within a month of the first government purchase - probably for $400+. It's perfect black market fodder. It has a coolness factor in the developed world, it's impossible to get directly, and there are plenty of corrupt people in the receiving countries who could "lose" a crate or to if it means getting a couple hundred bucks each for them.

Of course, all of this assumes that they aren't vaporware and they'll actually get them produced. They seem to want at least 5 million units preordered before production. We'll have to see if enough countries jump aboard, if all of the technical details can be worked out, if the price can be kept low, and if they'll actually be of any use by the time they get produced.

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