Is $100 too much to pay for a laptop?

First, a word about the hand crank. If mobile users in the so-called developed countries could extend the battery life of their notebooks by winding them up for a minute or so, I actually think they would prefer it to scrambling for a power outlet. In that sense, Nicholas Negroponte and the developers of the US$100 notebook were really onto something.

The hand crank has now been discarded in favour of a pedal, but that change is being drowned out by the pre-emptive criticism the MIT professor and his philanthropic non-governmental organization, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) has received from the kind of companies that should be on his side. Bill Gates ridiculed the hand crank, for example, at a recent conference, while Intel has derided the limited functionality of the proposed machines, forcing Negroponte to defend himself at the recent LinuxWorld Expo in Boston. I say “proposed” because OLPC doesn’t plan to ship its first notebook until early next year, which makes the reaction to his concept all the more unusual.

If you imagined OLPC as an enterprise IT project, you might say it lacks executive buy-in. But most senior managers would be unlikely to pick apart the speeds and feeds or the components of a product involved in such a project. Instead they would be attacking the business case – the reasons that justify such an investment in the first place. Although Negroponte’s mission is ostensibly to improve education by shrinking the digital divide, the dust-up over the notebook’s design obscures real questions about his implementation strategy. Instead of the “Field of Dreams” approach in which you build something and hope people will come, OLPC plans to distribute mobile computers and hope that they will be used effectively. No one at a bank would assume that installing a new server would enhance its ability to serve customers, but the same logic is not applied to the OLPC. Instead of asking how technology will solve the educational problem, the industry assumes that technology is a solution in itself.

In other respects, the OLPC is tackling development of the US$100 notebook by focusing on the concerns that preoccupy most enterprise IT managers: cost, power consumption and flexibility. Although plans for a Windows Mobile version are still in the works, the use of Linux and other open source software makes good financial sense while avoiding vendor lock-in. Ask a CIO why they’re putting more Linux in their data centre and they will tell you the same thing.

The dual-mode screen that switches from colour to black and white would probably make sense in a lot of office environments (much as users would loathe it), while the bare bones 500 MHz AMD processor and 128MB of DRAM would probably handle many of the tasks outside the knowledge worker class. As much as IDC talks about “good enough computing” in the PC market, most companies still treat their entire staff as power users.

If Negroponte and the OLPC succeed in creating the right kind of notebook, it could become a textbook case for “first world” organizations that want to scale down the complexity of their IT infrastructure as much as they want to extend their reach through the Internet and wireless technology. If they manage to properly align those notebooks with the objective of helping children learn, it will be a lesson for us all.

Shane Schick is the editor of
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Shane Schick
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