Professor hits back at $100 laptop critics

Boston, April 5:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor who hopes to distribute $100 laptops to the world’s children dismissed recent criticisms and said his project could begin distributing the computers by early next year.

Kicking off the LinuxWorld conference in Boston, Nicholas Negroponte said he was undeterred by skepticism from two of the leading forces in computing, Intel Corp and Microsoft Corp. “When you have both Intel and Microsoft on your case, you know you’re doing something right,” Negroponte said, prompting applause from the audience of several hundred open-source software devotees.

Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop Per Child nonprofit association, also revealed a few new tweaks to the design of the computers.

One distinctive element of the original design was for a hand crank to provide power to the laptops, which are being engineered to use just two watts of electricity, less than one-tenth of what conventional portable computers generally consume. But having a hand crank stuck to the device likely would have subjected the machine to too many wrenching forces, so it will now be connected to the AC electrical adapter. In fact, because the adapter can rest on the ground, the power generator might take the form of a foot pedal rather than a hand crank.

Negroponte had previously said the flexible devices will have a 18-cm screen that can be read in sunlight. It will save on costs by using the Linux operating system, peer-to-peer wireless connectivity and a 500-megahertz processor — which was top of the line in the late 1990s. One Laptop Per Child has big-name partners, including search leader Google Inc, chip-maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc, Linux distributor Red Hat Inc, laptop maker Quanta Computer Inc and News Corp, the media company led by Rupert Murdoch. All have helped finance the project, which Negroponte said has raised $29 million. However, skeptics have questioned whether the device can meet Negroponte’s goal of inspiring huge educational gains in the developing world.

Bill Gates has criticised the computers’ design, including its lack of a hard disk drive — though many people in the tech world believed he was more irked by the laptops’ use of Linux, the free, open-source system that competes with Gates’ proprietary Windows systems.

Intel executives, meanwhile, have suggested that Negroponte’s laptop is a mere gadget that will lack too many PC functions. Last week, Intel announced its own plans to sell an inexpensive desktop PC for beginners in developing countries. Negroponte expressed fru-stration with Gates in particular, saying that the $100 laptop designers are still working with MS to develop a version of the Windows CE operating system that could run the machines.

Negroponte’s current plan is to begin distributing five million to 10 million of the laptops in China, India, Egypt, Brazil, Thailand, Nigeria and Argentina by early 2007. Governments or donors will buy the laptops for children to own and use in and out of school, and the UN will help distribute the machines.

Negroponte expects the $100 laptop to be a misnomer. For one thing, he believes the cost — which is actually about $135 now and isn’t expected to hit $100 until 2008 — can drop to $50 by 2010 as more and more are produced. “The $100 laptop is an education project,” he said, “It’s not a laptop project.”