Kofi Annan and Nicholas Negroponte were scheduled to unveil the prototype design of the "$100 Laptop" (also known as the One Laptop Per Child project) today at the World Summit on the Information Society meeting in Tunis. (WorldChanging has previously discussed this project here -- Ethan gets a preview, here -- I get an update, and here -- my original post on the subject.) I haven't seen any reports yet from the scene, but while we wait, here are some updated links:
The One Laptop Per Child website at MIT has new pictures up of the latest version of the design. The crank (which currently does not actually work) has a definitely "toy" look to it, which is intentional (see below), and the unit itself is actually fairly small. The ability to flip the system into "e-book" and "laptop theater" mode is striking, however -- it's something most laptops costing ten or twenty times as much can't do.
The Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post have introductory articles out today, recapping the history and goals of the project. Each provides a useful new tidbit -- the CSM reports that Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has proposed a $54 million program to equip 500,000 state school students with the laptops, while the Post notes that the color and design of the laptops is meant to deter adult thieves by making the devices easily identifiable.
That may not be enough. The features of the $100 laptop are potentially attractive enough that some folks may just give it a quick spray paint job to avoid easy detection. The theft temptation is just one of the potential problems with the idea identified by Lee Felsenstein at the Fonly Institute. Other potential problems include power generation, the reliability of mesh networking, and the necessary support infrastructure. Felsenstein should know -- not only was he one of the leaders of the Homebrew Computer Club back in the 1970s and 1980s (and Laureate of the Tech Museum of Innovation), he was instrumental to the creation of the Remote Village IT project begun in 2002.
It's important to note that Felsenstein's arguments may not hold water: the power requirements may be lower than he supposes, for example, and solving the issue of persistence of mesh networks may require supplemental hubs, but is certainly not impossible. For me, his most powerful caution is calling out the attractiveness of the device for non-student use -- simply relying on bright colors to deter theft (or sales by family members) is not likely to be sufficient.
The larger question remains as to whether this is the right tool for the job at hand. I have no doubt that the technology/price point is achievable, eventually. And certainly, for at least some of the students, a device like this will enhance learning and access to information. But whether this is a better solution than other solutions -- both technological and otherwise -- is a still-unanswered question. Books are less-costly and far less likely to be stolen, and community computers (akin to "Village Phones") would provide access with less risk of theft or misappropriation. They aren't even good models for the technologies that the students in the global south are likely to be using as adults: systems based on mobile phone-type architectures are already far more common, and can carry out many key economic tasks.
Still, I'm not as convinced that the program will inevitably fail as is Felsenstein. There is a form of immersion in information that's possible with a larger screen that simply cannot be replicated with a mobile phone-type device. The distribution and theft issue is likely solvable, if difficult. But neither am I as convinced as Negroponte that this is the best course of action.
I'm willing to see it tested, though -- and would be happy to be surprised.