December 10, 2005 12:05 AM PST
We haven't talked about the MIT $100 laptop
. This laptop is interesting technically, but much more interesting from a social perspective. Read on for my thoughts, and please comment with yours.
Today's sour grapes article from the Chairman of Intel
on the laptop is pretty rich, given that it contains an AMD chip and undercuts the large profits Intel has made with premium computers, and especially their dominance in the laptop arena. It's frustrating that that basic message of the article is: sure you can probably give people a $100 laptop, but what you really need is a bad ass Centrino® machine with "full desktop capability". Also, derogatorily calling them "gadgets" is pretty funny considering how many "handheld gadgets" including most PocketPCs contain Intel Xscale chips. We won't even get into his comments about how no one will run apps from "a server in the sky" (Hello - Web 2.0? Microsoft Live services, Google apps, Yahoo apps...)
At least Steve Jobs combined his desire for increased market share with some altruism by offering OS X for free on each laptop
. Initially I thought the decision to reject the offer was a bad one. But I do feel that a fully open source software solution is the right one for the goals of the project. Maybe they'll also make the hardware "open source" and all the components license free...
Anyway... the article did get me thinking about these laptop a little more. The goal seems a bit lofty given the current state of technology, but it should be lofty if it's going to change the world. I actually have a signed copy of Being Digital
and this guy thinks big. My categorized thoughts:
- The specs look fine to run web based applications, although I'm a little worried that browsers (especially FireFox) are becoming a bit too bloated for this speed processor.
- The specifications don't specify if it's 1GB of storage, or 1GB of ram. I'm guessing storage, because that seems like a lot of ram, and you'd need 1GB of storage just to hold a standard Linux OS and applications.
- The hand crank is awesome.
- The screen technology is a great idea if it can be developed cheaply.
- The device is actually quite small. The project site shows the keyboard scale with a child's hands, and it's a tight fit.
- Obviously Web based apps require connectivity and that will be tricky for where these devices are to be deployed. It's sort of a chicken and egg problem really, so I don't really see a problem with the laptops coming first.
- A reliable, rugged keyboard may be difficult to do for so cheap.
- I'm not sure where all the software and support will come from. This device will have to be tested incredibly well, and support remote upgrading of all software components. Also, unless the team knows of some web applications that I don't, it will take a while to build the online software infrastructure. Google is on the board of directors though... hmmm.
- One huge benefit of a "network computer" is that the required software maintenance is much lower than a standard computer. Remote applications can magically have new features, and Web based apps aren't as risky virus and spyware-wise.
- Web based applications would store all data on servers, eliminating backup and equipment failure problems. All data (emails, etc) would be proxied through a provider that could prevent the laptops from becoming millions of zombie spambots.
- They have not mentioned it at all, but I actually see a use for a Trusted Computing Module on the device. This basically allows some level of access to the device that the actual owner cannot get. Typically this is to enforce DRM rules, but in this case, it could be used to prevent virus and spyware from getting into the core of the system. A special reset switch could be used to literally hard reset the device to bootstrap a clean copy of the OS off the network. This functionality could also be used as a kill switch for the laptop, essentially preventing the laptop from operating on the network if it was reported stolen.
- This is basically the device I want to take when I go traveling. I really don't need much more than email and web (maybe IM and VoIP). The ability to download and touch up images from a digital camera is nice too. That's about it, except maybe a hand-crank so I don't have to worry about finding plugs :-) I've also read reports that this device will work on cell phone networks as well.
- Some articles have claimed that people outside the target users will be able to buy the laptop for $200. I don't know the intention of this pricing, but I love the idea of (relatively) wealthy users subsidizing the laptop for others. I think even $300 would work - you get one, and buy 2 for people who couldn't afford them.
- How much would Coke subsidize these laptops if their logo was on the back? How about just the desktop background? I joke because:
- It's ridiculous that carbonated sugar water with artificial stimulant should even be sold in countries so rife with debt, poverty, malnutrition and widespread medical need.
- It's funny because it's true. It's totally possible a government would use this method to reduce the laptop costs, and it's almost a certainty that the online services will be supported by ads.
- The most important impact of the laptop to me isn't in the classroom. It's in the world. Children who never will have the chance to travel will be able to broaden their understanding of the world. Cross cultural education is the most important thing we can do to ease the conflict between people as the world grows together. The increasing amount of damage one person can cause, combined with the growing trend towards fundamentalism must be addressed.
- Put another way: it's just as important for a kid in Egypt to know what Jenny in New Jersey ate for breakfast this morning, as it is to read a paragraph of Shakespeare. Understanding and relating to the world at a personal level is absolutely critical.
- Programs such as GenYES provide sustainable methods for students and teachers to work together to create curriculum that utilizes computers in the schools, and a forum to share these lesson plans and classes with other schools across the world.
- Initiatives like MIT Open Courseware and, uh, the Web are obviously great resources for higher learning.
- A Trusted Computing type DRM core on the chip could provide a great benefit if used properly. Google, Amazon and others are scanning in books en-masse. Apple and others have vast online libraries of digital audio and video. If this content could be provided for free only to users of these laptops, it would not impact the bottom line of these companies and provide an incredible service to people who can't afford the content. The primary reason (besides greed) pharmaceutical companies don't provide cheap versions of drugs to 3rd world countries is because it would create a massive black market and impact profits back home (which are to a great extent plowed back into R&D for developing new drugs). Imagine if you could target free drugs only people who could not pay for your drugs anyway. Providing digital content in this way is not as powerful, but much more technically feasible. I'm sure at least U2 would make all their albums available :-)
Overall, I'm so glad to see something like this that's not motivated by greed. I think that content developers and service providers will join the project or be left behind. Imagine, as an open (or closed) source developer, being able to write a Web service that could instantly be deployed to MILLIONS of users. None would pay to use it. Will people still develop these services? You bet. And corporations will rush to scale the hosting and bandwidth if for no other reason than to advertise to an entirely new market.
It may seem a bit techno-centric, wasteful, or mis-prioritized to spend $100 per kid on a laptop when you can keep another alive with food for a couple months, or buy (overpriced) AIDS drugs for those in need. But consider that the biggest threat to world peace now (and probably always) is a lack of understanding and a common base of reference. We can end extreme poverty in Africa, curable diseases can be stopped, and a global community of respect and communication can be created.