Hand-cranked computers: Is this a wind-up?

Hand-cranked computers cheap enough for every child in the world? It sounds ideal, but not everyone is happy. Jimmy Lee Shreeve reports

Dubbed the "green machine", MIT's crank-handle-powered laptop is being hailed as an invention that will revolutionise education in the developing world. And when you're unveiling such a piece of technology, you clearly don't want any mishaps.

But, fortunately, the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was able to hide his embarrassment when he accidentally snapped the crank-handle off the prototype, lime green-coloured laptop he was helping to showcase at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis last Thursday.

He had little cause to worry, though: the laptop, which he described as an "expression of global solidarity", was actually a non-functioning model of a design dreamed up by Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. As Negroponte told the Summit, his aim is to put an internet- and wi-fi-enabled laptop in the hands of every child in the developing world by 2010.

The proposed laptop, which was announced in January this year, will be powered by a wind-up mechanism (for areas where no electricity is available) and will have very low power consumption. According to Negroponte, access to IT will make all the difference to education in the developing world. "Studies have shown that kids take up computers much more easily [than adults] in the comfort of warm, well-lit, rich-country living rooms, but also in the slums and remote areas all around the developing world," he said.

The technology visionary - who founded Wired magazine - has set up a not-for-profit organisation called One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) to sell the laptops for $100 to the governments of developing nations. The idea is that the governments will then distribute the machines for free.

Children will have a choice as to how to use the green machine - as a conventional computer or as an electronic book. The device will have an 8in screen, and it will be possible to hold it much as you would a hand-held games console. It will also function as a TV. "The idea is that it fulfils many roles. It is the whole theory that learning is seamless," said Negroponte.

To save money, green machines will run off the open source Linux operating system, which is free, instead of a proprietary system such as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X. The machines will have a modest 500MHz processor (slow by today's standards, but not much of a problem when running Linux OS), and will be fitted with 1GB of flash memory rather than a hard drive, which is more delicate due to its moving parts. The laptops will be full-colour, capable of wireless connection to the internet, and encased in rubber. Even the machines' AC adaptors double as carrying straps.

Five corporate sponsors, including Google and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), have chipped in $2m (£1.2m) apiece to the project. Negroponte has specified that each country orders a million units minimum, in order to keep costs down, and half a dozen developing countries have already expressed serious interest. Also, the United Nations Development Programme has agreed to help with the distribution of the machines to countries whose orders fall below the million-unit bar.

Expectations are high, with mass distribution expected late next year or early in 2007. But some are sceptical. After all, what was on display at the World Summit on the Information Society earlier this month was only a mock-up.

The inventor Trevor Baylis, who created the clockwork radio, has doubts. After being invited to MIT Media Lab to view the prototype, he commented: "It could have been put together with a Lego kit. Nothing worked. I was expecting him to show me the screen in action or the wind-up feature, but I saw nothing but a basic prototype."

Another worry is what will happen to the laptops after they've been handed out free. The average Nigerian, for example, makes less than £600 a year, so a family would have a strong incentive to sell the laptop. Negroponte, however, says that you simply need to find a way to remove the secondary market: "One solution would be to make sure the machine will be disabled if it doesn't log in to the network for a few days," he suggests.

There is even some doubt as to whether Negroponte will be able to keep the price down to $100. He himself admits that negotiations with governments have been "very hard", and that price quotes to build the laptops remain closer to $110 than $100.

But even Baylis says: "If Negroponte has done it, full marks to the guy." And, as history has shown, people with vision usually find a way to make their ideas reality.

For more information, see laptop.media.mit.edu/

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