November 17, 2005

Researchers Unveil $100 Laptop for School Kids

TUNIS -- Researchers unveiled a $100, hand-cranked laptop computer on Wednesday and said they hoped to place them in the hands of millions of school children around the globe.

About the size of a textbook, the lime-green machines can set up their own wireless networks and operate in areas without a reliable electricity supply, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers said at a United Nations technology summit.

"These robust, versatile machines will enable children to become more active in their own learning," U.N. Secretary-General     Kofi Annan said at a press conference where the machine was unveiled.

The goal is to provide the machines free of charge to children in poor countries who cannot afford computers of their own, said MIT Media Lab chairman Nicholas Negroponte.

Governments or charitable donors will pay for the machines but children will own them, he said.

"Ownership of the laptops is absolutely critical," he said. "Have you ever washed a rented car?"

Brazil, Thailand, Egypt and Nigeria are candidates to receive the first wave of laptops starting in February or March, and each will buy at least 1 million units, he said.

The laptop is not yet in production but one company has offered to build it for $110 and four others are considering bids as well, he said.

The computers operate at 500 MHz, about half the processor speed of commercial laptops, and will run on     Linux or some other open-source operating system, he said.

They can be folded in different ways to serve as an electronic book, a television or a computer. A bright yellow hand crank that sticks out prominently from the side serves as an alternate power source when batteries or an electric outlet are not available.

The computer uses a screen from a portable DVD player, which can be switched from color to black and white to make it easily viewable in bright sunlight, said Mary Lou Jepsen, the project's chief technical officer.

A free laptop program in the state of Maine has increased school attendance and boosted participation, Negroponte said.

"If you get those kinds of results, I'm going to build the machines," he said. "There's enough passion and enough kids that are able to do things they were not able to do before that justifies it."

Negroponte said the machines might be commercially available to the general public at a higher price -- perhaps $200 or so. But their bright color and distinctive appearance should discourage anybody from stealing or buying one from a student, he said.