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World's first working $100 laptop
Tech evangelist Nicholas Negroponte wants to outfit the world's children to improve education.
November 16, 2005: 5:23 PM EST
By David Kirkpatrick, FORTUNE senior editor
The laptop, powered with a crank, is intended for students.
The laptop, powered with a crank, is intended for students.

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Nick Negroponte would like to sell you a $100 laptop, especially if you're head of state in a large developing country.

That's why he is at the World Summit on the Information Society, the giant UN-sponsored gathering that starts Wednesday in Tunis. Negroponte plans to show for the first time a working prototype of his new device, intended for hundreds of millions of mostly-poor students worldwide. The techies and government ministers in Tunis are his ideal target market.

At the Media Lab at MIT, which Negroponte founded 20 years ago, researchers are working not only on the engineering to make such an inexpensive product possible, but on computer interfaces to enable kids to learn without teachers, and on a curriculum to teach them every sort of subject.

Negroponte's message has a seductive simplicity. As he puts it in an interview: "One laptop per child: Children are your most precious resource, and they can do a lot of self-learning and peer-to-peer teaching. Bingo. End of story."

He's seeking orders in lots of a million. So far, Brazilian President Luiz Incio "Lula" da Silva has agreed to buy a million, Negroponte says, and Chile, Argentina and Thailand are lining up. Negroponte hopes to start production next year, ramping up to tens of millions in 2007.

The device is a stripped-down affair, with an electricity-generating crank and a swiveling seven-inch screen, for basic word-processing, Internet and communications. It has no hard drive, instead using flash memory like that in a digital camera. The processor, from AMD, runs at a pokey 500 megahertz.

Each laptop will include a Wi-Fi radio transmitter designed to knit machines into a wireless "mesh" so they can share a Net connection, passing it from one computer to the next. Though there is a power cord, that cool crank can provide roughly ten minutes of juice for each minute of turning.

The key to chopping the price to $100: reducing the cost of the screen. Negroponte's chief technology officer Mary Lou Jepsen, who used to work at Intel, has invented a display she thinks could be built for $35 or less (compared with the typical $100 or more).

Negroponte's nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), which will distribute the device, has raised a total of $10 million, with more on the way. Says Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. contributed $2 million: "Nick's endeavor has the prospect of potentially transforming the lives of millions of children in the developing world." Google also chipped in $2 million.

Even tech titans like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell are talking to Negroponte about his plans. Jobs initially dismissed the laptop as a "science project" but is now contributing ideas. Dell had his staff vet the cost of the device's components. And Gates would like Negroponte to use Microsoft software rather than the free open-source alternatives that Negroponte currently favors.

The impediments, needless to say, are numerous and daunting. "Most schools in the developing world don't even have textbooks," says Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute. "How the heck are they going to pay for Internet access?"

Even Hector Ruiz, CEO of AMD, which gave $2 million to OLPC, says success will require "developing larger ecosystems around ... tech support, application development, training and business models for the Internet service providers." Those elements aren't close to being in place, and Ruiz thinks the laptop's price won't drop to $100 for two to three years. Yet even skeptics are loath to pooh-pooh Negroponte's activism: "If he can pull it off," Hammond says, "my hat's off to him."

Negroponte is currently talking to hardware companies about marketing a pricier version that will subsidize the nonprofit model. His stop in Tunis is just one on a long mission he seems unlikely to give up. "What if we fail?" he asks. "Failure means it's $142.07 and six months late. Failure doesn't mean it doesn't happen or it's a bad idea."

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