The 100 dollar laptop and the Philippines

IJsselstein, Friday, 3 March 2006 16:37:08

Recently the head of the US based MIT Media Lab, Mr. Nicholas Negroponte presented a prototype of the 100 dollar laptop to UN Chairman Kofi Annan at the WSIS-summit in Tunis. This little bright green laptop can do almost anything a current laptop computer can, but, by using mass-produced cheap components, omitting expensive moving parts, and by the law of great numbers can be made for just one tenth of its price. The price in the title is no mistake: this machine can be made for just 100 US dollars (5500 Pesos).

The specifications are not bad, and tuned for the requirements of developing countries. They have a color display, 128 MB of DRAM memory, 500 MB of flash memory, a 500 MHz processor, and include Wifi (wireless LAN) connectivity and four USB ports. What they lack is a hard-disk or CD-Rom drive: they use flash memory instead. Installed on the laptop will be the free Linux operating system, and can be loaded with various types of educational software. The design is quite revolutionary, and allows the machine to double up as a media player and electronic book, and even includes space for a hand-driven generator, to be used when no grid-power is available. Software will be included to create an instant peer-to-peer network, using wifi, such that even remote areas can be interconnected, as long as enough machines are available within each-others range. Ideally to share information, homework, and chat, and with a microphone, it could even replace a cell-phone locally.

To understand how big a revolution this machine would be, I compare this project with a small project I've been involved with preparing refurbished computers for Philippine schools. This project has been somewhat unsatisfying for a number of reasons.

  1. Costs of shipment. Although I have been partly relying on donated shipping, the cost of shipping a complete refurbished computer, including required peripherals, such as a monitor and keyboards, is about 100 dollars (door-to-door from Holland to Bohol, The Philippines, when shipping several sets at once). This already pays for one laptop.
  2. Hardware diversity. The machines a refurbish come from various sources, and as a result, I have to deal with a large variety of machines, and find drivers to support all kinds of odd and outdated hardware. This is fairly labor-intensive, and would, if performed by paid labor, be quite expensive. This also complicates hardware support on the spot.
  3. Software not included. Refurbished machines typically come without software. Even though most machines where originally pre-configured with an OS, the original media and licenses are lost. Linux is not always the solution, as it often doesn't run with the variety of hardware offered, and older versions of Linux do not offer a viable desktop environment. The introduction of license stickers has somewhat resolved this issue now.
  4. Energy consumption. The refurbished machines are bulky, consume considerable amounts of energy, and rely on the presence of a reliable grid. Given the current price of electricity and the number of brown-outs in the Philippines this is a major drawback.

The $100 Laptop would resolve all these issues, and would be more powerful than most refurbished machines.

It is surprising, the Philippine government appears not to be more involved with this development. Currently, only Brazil, China, Egypt, Nigeria, Thailand and South Africa seem to be on the list. The machine is also ideal for this country. With over 15 million school-going children, this machine would not only allow a leap forward in education, it would actually allow the government and parents to save considerably on books. This would balance considerably the investment required, as the $100 laptop could replace all books: in the 3 years life-time of such a computer, the books, and cost of their distribution, could easily add up to its price, even considering the rather low quality of paper and printing used. Distribution of books on these computers would be very easy, given their build-in wifi connectivity. Copyright would not be in issue here, as all books thus distributed would specifically commissioned for this project.

The distribution of knowledge those laptops enable, connects this project two other projects that I consider revolutionary. They are Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg (for which I'm currently building a Philippine daughter site), in that they make the distribution of knowledge, and the access to cultural heritage dramatically cheaper than it used to be. Project Gutenberg currently has almost 20000, mostly older, books available for free download, whereas Wikipedia already presents current knowledge in considerable depth. Having millions of young people able to access those resources will instantly magnify their significance.

For most families in the Philippines, 5500 pesos is a considerable amount, but not one that is unsurmountable. Given the quick spread of cell phones even in poor rural areas and the wide distribution of television sets, both costing roughly the same as this laptop, people can be willing to invest in this laptop, once they see the value of it. This means, the government need not even invest huge amounts of money into this. As long as it is willing to serve as a cataliser, shoulder initial investments, build a proper infrastructure, and develop teaching materials for it. This will enable the children of the Philippines to obtain such a machine, and many families will fairly well be able to pay--if not all, a significant part--of the costs. By not giving them away, but selling them, it would build in a guaranty that the machines are not wasted, but cared for as a valuable piece of property.

Please note that the $100 laptops—not yet in production—will not be available for sale. The laptops will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives.

Jeroen Hellingman