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Published in Print: February 8, 2006, as U.N. Agency Signs On to Help Spread Low-Cost Laptops

U.N. Agency Signs On to Help Spread Low-Cost Laptops

Students Abroad Targeted for Technology

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Endorsing a novel $100 laptop for children, the U.N. agency that coordinates development assistance has agreed to help start projects to use the devices for education in some of the world’s poorest nations.

A memorandum of understanding signed Jan. 28 formalizes a partnership between the United Nations Development Program, based in New York City, and One Laptop Per Child.

Nicholas Negroponte, the co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, started the Wilmington, Del.-based nonprofit last year “to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education,” according to the Web site for the initiative.

He announced recently that the initiative will be launched first in seven moderately developed countries—Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Nigeria, and Thailand—wealthy enough to buy the laptops for children in test sites.

The initiative has signed up corporate partners that include the Internet services giant Google Inc. and Red Hat Inc., a leading developer of the Linux operating system. They have committed money and services to the initiative.

The U.N. agency’s role will be to focus on the needs of the world’s least-developed countries, according to Raul Zambrano, a development-program policy adviser who has worked on the agency’s plans.

“We have a two-track approach for this. First, Negroponte is wanting to target middle-income countries—they have capacity to do this on their own,” he said. “When it comes to poorer countries, they don’t have these capacities,” and the development program will help.

Access Sharing

The inexpensive laptops won’t begin to roll off the assembly lines of the initial manufacturer, the Taiwan computer maker Quanta Computer Inc., until next fall or later, but plans are to produce 5 million of them within the next five years.

Already, the lime-green prototype has been a sensation at several U.N. meetings since it was unveiled last fall. The rugged laptop has a liquid-crystal display screen that can be switched from color to sharp, black-and-white. The screen is also unusual for its low cost and very low-power consumption. The computer obtains power from an AC adapter or the wind-up crank located on one side.

The computer, which runs on a 500 MHz microchip, is robust, according to the designers at the MIT Media Lab, in Cambridge, Mass. It has a wireless-networking capability, so that if one laptop is directly connected to the Internet, a group of nearby laptops can share that access merely by powering on—a valuable feature given the limited Internet access in many poor countries.

As another way to keep costs low, the computer will operate with a slimmed-down version of the Linux operating system.

Although the $100 laptops are not intended for sale to the general public, Mr Zambrano said that Mr. Negroponte has mentioned the possibility of licensing the technology to another computer manufacturer and selling the laptop commercially, say, for $300, using the profits to lower the cost for poor communities.

PHOTO: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, left, tries to fix the crank of a prototype computer in Tunisia last fall that developer Nicholas Negroponte, right, intends to sell to poor countries. The laptop stores only a modest amount of data to discourage adult usage.
—File photo by Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

Vol. 25, Issue 22, Page 9

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Correction: 
This story gave the wrong location for the group One Laptop Per Child. Although it is a Delaware corporation, the group is based in Cambridge, Mass.

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