Saturday, July 29, 2006

Designing the 100 dollar laptop

eWeek did a story (with pictures) sometime ago about the latest version of the 100 dollar laptop.

Technology Review did a story about the design of the laptop's human-powered generator.

Wired has a profile of Yves Béhar, the designer behind some of the nifty things in the 100 dollar laptop from the OLPC initiative.

Figuring out how to protect everything from dust and moisture was harder. Béhar replaced the traditional keyboard on Design Continuum’s model with a sealed rubber one and built a sensor right into the palm rest to eliminate the seam between it and the trackpad found on a regular laptop. Other problems: The USB ports were exposed to the elements, and a pair of radio antennas had to stay outside the machine. (The Media Lab wanted the antennas to have a half-mile range for building a city- or village-wide mesh network, with each laptop acting as a node.) Solving one problem solved the other: Béhar turned the antennas into a pair of playful “ears”that swivel up for reception or down to cover the laptop’s naked ports.

“Everything on the laptop serves at least two purposes,” he says.

There are at least two places where Wired sounds skeptical of the whole OLPC initiative:

... Depending on who you asked, it was either soon-to-be-legendary vaporware or a shortcut to modern education for tens of millions of poor kids around the world. [...]

If it succeeds, Béhar’s design will become an icon. If it fails, it will be something more like the first English-Esperanto dictionary – an artifact of ill-fated idealism.

The skepticism expressed in the Wired piece is about the technology, its feasibility and its acceptability. These technical problems may well be overcome, if a lot of smart minds (and money) are thrown at them. What I would question is the OLPC's strategy of selling the laptops directly to bureaucrats, but not to the actual users.

Finally, Nicholas Negroponte is quoted in the Wired story as saying that he is willing to delay the launch of the laptop until he is able to sell a self-imposed minimum of 5 million units. This is an interesting confession.


  1. Anonymous said...

    > he is willing to delay the launch of the
    > laptop until he is able to sell a self-
    > imposed minimum of 5 million units. This
    > is an interesting confession.

    I can think of two things:

    1. Perhaps 5-million units would break even the cost of developing such a device?

    2. To guage the real need of such a device in countries, markets, et al?

    I find it hard to understand why any good invention has to go through the hackles of issues being raised in protest. If I start thinking on similar lines, I'd say why provide electronic land records by Bhoomi project? This would cut jobs, impose deployment and learning curve costs to every establishment.

    Everyone knows what a smash Bhoomi is. To some of the people from my village, it's god-sent!

  2. Anonymous said...

    Adding to the above:

    Throughout your opposition, you have only been attacking that one idea: that "kids don't need an expensive toys."

    This I agree.

    But the inventor does not have to come with an idea that flies. That is for us and Governments to decide. And if we have some greymatter up there, we can think of 1000s of ways to use this. Let me throw some cookies for thought:

    1. All government offices [registration: births and deaths, land records, word processing, typing section, service departments, water, food, municipality, the list is endless]. One device on every table. [Watch the efficiency zoom!]

    Every Government person who can access records of any type can impose less burden on citizen, instead of searching old paper records buried in the heap, lost or damaged.

    2. One laptop per teacher or discipline [science, maths, arts, history, civics]
    3. Gram panchayats.
    4. Remote access from places lacking power and telephones.
    5. Land survey equipment.

    I can just go on and on. A 100 dollar laptop is a dream. It is indeed a head-banger to hit home a simple idea whose utility is far beyond being a tool for playing games.

    Professor, drop the conservative thinking. Look at the big picture. We are a land of villages. If you want to lift them all up in 10-years (yes, we are in a hurry), then it is not governance [we have seen it in last 60 years), but technology that will kick-us from our borroughs.

  3. Anonymous said...

    So we cannot afford 450 crores for providing our truly underprivileged kids with computers. Yet we can afford 16000 crores for massive and sometimes reckless expansion of tertiary education. Yet we can afford 3000 crores to provide colour TVs.

    Read more on my blog.

  4. Anonymous said...

    "Perhaps 5-million units would break even the cost of developing such a device?"

    Not just that, but many units will create a market of user-producers, and may make mesh networks a feasible idea.

  5. Anonymous said...

    I also thought this comment from Béhar was interesting: "Computers were supposed to be a democratizing tool. [...] One Laptop per Child is the first thing I've seen in many years that is in line with the original goal of the PC."

  6. Anonymous said...

    Er, I broke my URL. There should be a question mark in front of the word author. Clicking my name in this comment should work.