Three researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have embarked on an ambitious plan to close the global digital divide: They’re recruiting corporate partners to join MIT in designing and mass-producing basic, durable laptops costing $100 or less that hundreds of millions of children worldwide–perhaps even U.S. students–could use at school and home.

The “one laptop per child” plan could give children internet- and multimedia-capable computers to make laptops as ubiquitous as cell phones in the world’s technology-deprived regions.

At the same time, kids could get their parents hooked.

“It’s a way of having the children be the agents of change,” Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT’s Media Lab and chairman of the 2B1 Foundation, which is seeking to bring computer technology to the developing world, told the Associated Press. “They bring the device home, and then the parents look over their shoulder.”

Negroponte and MIT colleagues Joe Jacobson and Seymour Papert expect the laptops will be equipped with Wi-Fi capability to share broadband links at school, and could serve as entertainment devices at home. Kids could link their laptops–with one serving as a DVD player, another as a sound device, and a third providing data storage.

The project isn’t entirely without precedent. Maine has a first-in-the-nation middle school program now in its third year that put $300 laptops in the hands of more than 34,000 seventh- and eighth-graders and teachers. But at $300 apiece, the devices are still too expensive for most schools or communities in poor areas of the country or the world to consider.

The $100 laptop project still faces many hurdles. Al Hammond, director for the nonprofit World Resources Institute’s Digital Dividend project in Washington, D.C., worries that customer support in poor, rural areas could prove a big obstacle.

“The key is to create something affordable and sufficiently robust to protect against voltage surges, against dust, and against being dropped, and against all the perils of the internet,” Hammond said. “Those things are more important if the nearest computer tech is three villages away and you don’t have an air-conditioned office to work in.”

Like Hammond, Andy Carvin, director of the Newton, Mass.-based nonprofit Digital Divide Network, applauds the project’s goals, calling an extremely low-cost, durable laptop “one of the holy grails of bridging the digital divide.”

But he said increasingly sophisticated and versatile wireless handhelds, like high-end “smart” cell phones and Blackberry devices, might gain favor over laptops as the developing world’s online tools of choice.

“That’s not to suggest we should not have an inexpensive laptop,” Carvin said. “They’re parallel tracks, and it’s probably a healthy competition to have both.”

The digital divide is believed to be narrowing, but it remains vast.

Technology research firm IDC, based in Framingham, Mass., examined 53 countries and determined that a household in Canada was 131 times more likely to own a personal computer than one in Indonesia–hardly the world’s least tech-oriented country. The U.S. trailed Canada at No. 2 by that measure in rankings that examined computer use in countries that fall in the top third for advanced technology use.

It’s that gap that Negroponte and his MIT colleagues have set their sights on.

In recent months, they’ve gained three corporate partners committing an initial $2 million for the project: Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc., which will bring expertise in processors; search engine web site, Google.com; and News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s media company.

Negroponte acknowledges the collaborators have some technical obstacles to overcome–primarily designing a simple, low-power display that doesn’t put the price out of reach or drain the battery too quickly.

But the MIT team believes it has the right recipe: Put the laptop on a software diet with only widely used programs; use the freely distributed Linux operating system; design a battery capable of being recharged with a hand crank; and use newly developed “electronic ink” or a novel rear-projected image display with a 12-inch screen. Then, give it Wi-Fi access, and add USB ports to hook up peripheral devices.

Most importantly, take profits, sales costs, and marketing expenses out of the picture, and handle orders no smaller than 1 million units.

“The technology challenge is real, and you need to make some breakthroughs, but most of the money is saved in other ways,” said Negroponte, who pitched the project in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, discussing it with dignitaries and celebrities like U2’s Bono.

Negroponte also has met with education officials in China and Brazil to discuss expected orders for potentially hundreds of millions of laptops. The computers could possibly be produced in the countries buying them, creating local jobs, and would be handed out to schoolchildren for free.

The cost of a laptop could come in far lower than a child’s textbook expenses for the computer’s lifespan, Negroponte says.

Two prototypes have been built, with plans for initial models that could incorporate some elements of existing low-end laptops until design details are finalized for the display and other features. Test units could be shipped by the middle of next year, with as many as 200 million production units shipped by 2007.

In the $100 laptop project, approximately $90 would cover the hardware for each computer, with $10 for contingencies or up to an 11 percent profit margin, depending on how each government’s order is structured.

The project is in line with the goals of one of the project’s corporate partners, AMD, whose “50 x 15” initiative aims to expand connectivity and computing to 50 percent of the global population by 2015. The company also recently introduced a $185 bare-bones desktop computer to expand AMD’s reach into underdeveloped overseas markets.

“This approach is built on incentives and strategies that are not just about goodwill, but also about good business because it helps create new markets of tech-capable consumers,” said Gino Giannotti, a vice president at AMD.

Negroponte said the project is gaining momentum after his recent presentation at Davos, boosting his campaign to recruit more corporate partners.

“After Davos, everybody has had a much more can-do attitude,” Negroponte said. “People are now calling me saying, ‘We’d like to participate, and not only can we participate, but we can do it cheaper, or we can create better performance in this laptop.’ People are saying, ‘My God, this is real.'”

Links:

MIT Media Lab
http://www.media.mit.edu