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The windup to the $100 PC

If you want a $100 PC, you may have to move to the developing world. But don't call United Van Lines just yet--the low-cost computers with a social conscience are still a couple of years out.

Nicholas Negroponte has brought his quest for the $100 PC--and a way to "revolutionize how we educate the world's children"--to Cambodia. In places like that, the MIT Media Lab guru says, a laptop can be "the brightest light source in the home." It's too bad that electricity isn't included with the price, critics argue. But Negroponte has a rejoinder: The rugged devices could make use of "innovative power (including wind-up)." As for hooking up to the Internet or telecom networks, the plan is for the machines to create their own out-of-the-box mesh networks.

Other components would be more of the off-the-shelf variety. Negroponte says the laptops will run Linux, sport a 500MHz processor and 1GB of memory, be Wi-Fi and cell phone enabled, and "have USB ports galore." Actually, the machine itself, including the approximately 12-inch display, will cost only $90--the other $10 is set aside "for contingency or profit." About that display--the final specs aren't in yet. The Media Lab is looking into five different options, with "projected image" technology being the leading candidate, and the lab's own E-ink being more of a dark horse.

The preliminary schedule calls for shipments of the PCs by the end of 2006 or early 2007.

If the Media Lab can pull it off, that would be quite a feat. Microsoft's antipiracy-minded Steve Ballmer last year called for a move toward the $100 PC, but the closest anyone's gotten so far has been Advanced Micro Devices with its Personal Internet Connector--a prototype with a price tag of at least $185, with no display.

Negroponte says it isn't so terribly hard to "get the fat out of the systems. Today's laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways." The real challenge? "Manufacturing 100 million of anything." Initial orders will have to start at a minimum of 1 million PCs. Negroponte has his eyes fixed on China, for obvious economies of scale, but also smaller countries for beta testing. Ministries of education could distribute the laptops like textbooks.

"The scale is daunting," Negroponte says, "but I find myself amazed at what some companies are proposing to us. It feels as though at least half the problems are being solved by mere resolve."