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A $100 laptop to change the world

How much for a new laptop? That depends. You can pay $800 or so for a hefty "desktop replacement," or $1,500 for a light, sleek portable optimized for road warriors.

But for the world's poorest countries, laptops may someday cost just $100. That's the vision of Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. He's sketched out the design of a PC that Third World governments could buy in bulk for $100 apiece and distribute to children in a bid to boost their educations.

Negroponte and his wife founded two schools in Cambodia in 1999 and managed to acquire laptops for all of the students. He was so impressed by the results that he wants millions more laptops for the world's poorest kids. "Any problem you name, from birth control to basic health to poverty elimination to world peace, is best addressed through education," Negroponte said in an e-mail interview. "This is an education project, providing access to kids who have none."

It's a noble goal, and an exciting one even for American tech buffs. You don't have to be dirt-poor to desire a dirt-cheap computer. Lots of tasks need just a little computing power; those are jobs well suited to Negroponte's dream machine.

For one thing, it would be light. There would be no disk drives to speak of -- hard, CD-ROM, or floppy. Instead, the supercheap laptop would boast a gigabyte of main memory and use flash memory to store essential software. To add software or remove files, users would plug in a key chain flash memory drive or an external hard drive.

Or maybe the user wouldn't plug in anything. The planned $100 laptop would include WiFi wireless networking. Even more impressive is Negroponte's plan to include mesh networking capability. In a mesh network, every machine acts as a relay point, sending data to every other machine. Imagine a small town in Peru with one of these laptops in every home. They'd automatically talk to each other, instantly creating a municipal communications network for instant messages, e-mail, maybe even voice traffic.

The chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. will provide a microprocessor to be named later. AMD is already building its own cut-rate PC, a $185 device that would use a simplified version of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system. The Negroponte machine would rely on the Linux operating system, which can be had for free, and easily customized.

The most challenging part of the design will be the display screen. Flat-panel laptop displays cost hundreds of dollars, far more than Negroponte's entire machine. And Negroponte admitted his plan requires a display costing no more than $30.

Can it be done? Negroponte's colleague, Joseph Jacobson, thinks so. He's an associate professor at MIT and cofounder of E Ink, a Cambridge company that markets low-cost, low-powered display technology. Sony Corp. is already using an E Ink screen in a $300 electronic book sold in Japan. Jacobson said that improvements to the technology should enable E Ink to reach Negroponte's $30 price.

Unlike traditional flat screens made from pieces of glass, "E-ink is a roll of material," Jacobson said. "It's a plastic roll that can be extremely long." Indeed, E Ink hopes to crank the stuff out like Saran Wrap, allowing the production of tough, flexible, and very cheap video screens.

The screen in the Sony device is black-and-white, but E Ink is working with a Japanese firm to develop a color version. Early E Ink screens could only handle text, but the company has a version for full-motion video.

Another thing about E Ink: Standard flat-panel screens are power hogs, but E Ink only uses electricity when the image on the screen changes. While you're reading a page of text, the screen is using no power at all. So battery life should be magnificent.

By the way, you're the battery. Negroponte wants to power his laptop with a crank, just like the ones used on emergency radios. Given its low power consumption, it might work.

Why go to all this trouble? "I am doing it," replied Negroponte, "because I have seen connected laptops work in schools, in villages without electricity, TV, telephone, water and, in one case, not even a road."

God bless him for his good intentions -- and for coming up with a gadget that would be a hit even with people who can afford something "better."

Consider the lowly journalist on assignment. During the 1980s, we were often equipped with one of the first laptops, the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, affectionately known as the Trash-80. The screen was small and colorless. But it started instantly, with no boot-up delay. Its software was ultra-reliable, despite having been written in part by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. It had a slow but serviceable modem. It used memory chips that never forgot, even with the power off. In some respects, the hefty, fragile Dell notebooks now issued by the Globe are a pale imitation.

The Negroponte PC would be a Trash-80 for the 21st century, ideal for writers, students, travelers, and hangers-on at the local Starbucks. Negroponte's right about the world-changing potential of his idea. Here's hoping every child in the Third World gets a machine. But save some for the rest of us.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. 

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