Can A $100 Laptop Change The World?

The green and white gizmo is not much bigger than a clutch purse, but when you extend its plastic bunny-ear antennas and flip it open, clamshell style, the screen is colorful and welcoming, ready to network or create. It's even got a video camera and social networking software? It's the $100 (or so) laptop and its proud parent, the founder of the nonprofit One Laptop per Child, Nicholas Negroponte, believes it is within his sights to equip millions of developing-world children with these gadgets, paid for by governments and grants. NEWSWEEK caught up with the former head of the MIT Media Lab and best-selling author in Germany last month.

NEGROPONTE: There are basically two ways to make a low-cost laptop. One is to take cheap components, cheap labor, cheap design and make a cheap machine. And that's basically what's been done in the world. If you go to China and India, you'll see a lot of that. What we've tried to do is to use very large-scale integration [a method that uses fewer components], use really cool design and then of course make them in really large numbers, so that every kid gets one. [We're suggesting] that in year two, we're going to make 50 [million] to 100 million--that's more than all the laptop production, everywhere, in 2005. So that's like telling you I'm going to build a car, and by the way, in 18 months 50 percent of the cars you'll see on the street will be ours.

As recently as a year ago, when I met with a head of state I would spend 75 percent of my time arguing for one laptop per child as a concept. Now I spend zero time. It's a given.

I'm a director of Motorola, so I know a lot about cell phones. And cell phones, which now are somewhat over 2 billion units, are ubiquitous. But the form factor of the cell phone is not appropriate for a book, it's not appropriate for learning the way kids should be doing. The idea that you'd have a cell phone that connects to a TV with a keyboard and a gaggle of wires is nothing short of silly. Giving the kids a laptop that they can own, that's connected at home as well as at school, is not only the right approach but it is more book-oriented. Which is why we made our laptop convert into a book and convert into a games machine. And we operate on the economy of books: Brazil spends $19 per year per child on textbooks. So over five years, that's almost a hundred dollars right there. And now you've got Google at your fingertips, and you've got all this material.

Different people have different agendas. Intel is annoyed that it doesn't use their processor. That's a little petty. Intel was the first one I went to, and they turned it down. So AMD grabbed it--it took [CEO] Hector Ruiz only three hours to agree to supply the chips. The real issue for some companies is open source [the computer runs on Linux]. This could launch an open-source movement on the desktop that is very significant.

Yes. And let's think of what a $100 laptop can do that the $1, 000 laptop cannot do. Three things. It can be recharged with human power, because it's very power-efficient. Second, [multiple units can work together] to form a mesh wireless network. And then the third thing is that the screen is readable in sunlight.

We've got them in eight or 10 countries already, being tested. As for price, we'll probably start closer to $150, and then work down.

The kids. We think they can do 95 percent of the hardware maintenance.

Not this year. But in 2008, there are plans to launch some form of "buy two and get one" program, so that you buy one for yourself but you're also buying one for a kid in Africa or someplace.

Yeah. I had it sitting on a counter at a restaurant in Boston last week, and I was waiting for someone. The lady behind the bar came by and said, "I don't know what that is, but I want one."