by July 16, 2006 0 comments

It was at the recent RedHat summit that I saw the first working prototype of
the hundred dollar laptop. Prof Nicholas Negroponte (of MIT media labs fame) had
taken the stage to talk about the initiative to arm the world’s
lesser-privileged children with an affordable laptop.

As demonstrations go, it was no great show. He opened up something that
looked like a cute yellow toy, and said that that was just a dummy-the working
model was with someone else! And one would have expected that the speech to
Linux geeks would be more on how the OS of the machine was being optimized, or
what or how applications had to be created for the device.

But no! beyond a casual mention of the wireless mesh networking that was
proposed, and the broad type of applications, Professor Negroponte chose to talk
of the economic change that the machine could bring about, and how it could
empower children in otherwise impoverished circumstances. Of how an order for 10
million units can make even the largest of manufacturing conglomerates change
their strategies, and of how such a scale can bring down costs dramatically.

Krishna Kumar, Editor

The grand idea is to create a robust laptop at an affordable price of about a
hundred dollars and sell it in order quantities of a million or more to
participating governments. The laptops, robust plastic cased ones with dual
power sources regular and hand-cranked would end up being owned by the children
themselves. These low power devices with dual mode (color and monochrome) LCD
screens would come with built-in WiFi, sound, USB ports and flash storage and
would work on a meshed peer to peer network. The model that was shown to us was
capable of booting up with a stripped down version of Fedora Core.

One would have expected that the hall, on the last day of a four-day seminar
would be empty, particularly if you are talking of economics. But it was full
and people there seemed to catch on to the dream, for ultimately, that is what
it was-a dream. A dream in a grand scale no doubt, but with
a small unit cost. The project, though, is not a dream run all through. There is
the underlying debate on technology and vendor choices, of RedHat versus
Microsoft and of AMD versus Intel at the very least.

While they’re an essential part of our ecosystem, it would be sad if such
debates and the ensuing polarization of views end up derailing the project or
reducing its impact. It would be sad if such narrow debates lead to a grander
purpose being derailed.

Empowering a child is a very bold act. And empowering a few million is bolder
still. While we accept that kids are more knowledge savvy, we rarely try to
empower them to to seek and utilize that knowledge outside of our control. This
effort could potentially turn upside down the status quo of the knowledge
economy for generations to come. It could change existing global equations in
favor of the have-nots.

In the long term, the project may succeed or it might fail. Many million
laptops may happen or they may not. Even if they did, they many not be the ones
designed and created under this project. That is not the issue. The point is
that some one has dreamed and many would have tried to make that dream a
reality, and in the process would leave the world a better place. That is what
matters. Not which brand of Operating System it will run or which processor.

Krishna Kumar, Editor

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