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  D.F.'s Column Archive

December 6, 2006

Laptops So Cheap, Maybe They Should Just Eat Them


Nicholas Negroponte has a dream in which he is able to provide food to millions of the world’s poor children – all for just $100 per child.


Oh wait. Did I say food? Make that really cheap laptops. Negroponte spent 20 years running the Media Lab at MIT, so I suppose it should come as no surprise that he is thinking in terms of megabytes as opposed to megaburgers. And who am I to lampoon this idea if Mohmmar Khadafy is behind it?


Khadafy, America’s new friend if only because he doesn’t want to end up eating Doritos in a jail cell like his old friend Saddam Hussein, has told Negroponte he’s going to buy one for every child in Libya. Shimon Peres says he’s going to buy one for the Palestinian children in the West Bank. Count in the regimes of Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria and Thailand. Oops. Coup in Thailand. Scratch Thailand. It’s so hard to keep track these days.


Especially if you’re trying to keep up with Negroponte’s various prototypes of the World’s Cheapest Computer. How exactly do you make a computer designed to sell for $100 without losing your MIT-financed shirt and labcoat?


Negroponte has had many ideas. The first prototype had a screen that folded out like a tent and was lit by a tiny lamp. He showed it to Apple’s Steve Jobs, who told him it looked like a science project.


This was an easily correctable problem . . .


Negroponte figured out a way to make a better screen, but he didn’t want the laptop to use up too much electricity, because apparently there are parts of the Third World where that is a little hard to come by.


So Prototype #2 contained a cranking mechanism that powered up the juice, sort of like an old Victrola or a Model T. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan proudly demonstrated the hand-cranking device at a recent UN technology conference. Until it broke off in his hand.


This was an easily correctable problem . . .


Prototype #3 features a pull cord, sort of like your lawn mower. Of course, if you don’t put in the right mixture of gas and oil, you will never get the darn thing to start, and let’s not even talk about what happens when you let clumped up grass built up around the motherboard.


But never let it be said that Negroponte’s brainchild, branded the XO by its manufacturer, Taiwan-based Quanta Computer, isn’t sleek and cool. When you start it up, it plays a few bars of U2 music on its very tiny stereo speakers. Then, if the resulting electrical surge hasn’t set off a panic in the tribal village, the yunnun’s can enjoy content now being put together by the Wikimedia Foundation. These are the people who produce the famous online encyclopedia that is trusted by multitudes worldwide, even though I can edit it any time I want to say that Bill Gates and Pee Wee Herman are the same person.


Of course, most of us who use laptops get our “content” through this thing called the Internet. A few people have pointed out to Negroponte that reliable Internet access in the Third World has been known to be a tad scarce.


Negroponte has declared this an easily correctable problem . . .


Hey. I’m all for providing food to the world’s poor children. Oh, sorry, cheap laptops. But some dude somewhere said you get what you pay for, and then a whole bunch of other people quoted him and didn’t pay him for the privilege. And how much good are these contraptions really going to do all these poor kids if Mohmmar Khadafy can’t wait to start distribution?


Supposedly, 50 million XOs are set to ship by 2008. Any number of third-world potentates are ready to buy a million each and then play Santa Claus. The kids need something to do while they’re waiting for Sally Struthers to show up with their lunch. Let’s just hope that by the time they get their XOs to start, Sally hasn’t gotten tired of waiting and scarfed it herself. I saw on Wikipedia that she sometimes does that.


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This is Column # DFK57.  Request permission to publish here.