More computer brands chase the '$100 laptop'
Bye bye, bulk. New lines of tiny PCs fit both in your purse and into third-world classrooms.
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The tiny laptops, some roughly the size of a large paperback book, are far too large for a pants pocket, but could easily fit inside a purse. The smaller keyboards may work well for children. Many run on an operating system called Linux, favored by the technorati but little known among most computer users. Those that include Microsoft's familiar Windows usually cost a bit more. Microsoft has said it will continue to allow manufacturers to sell its older Windows XP system in the minilaptops, saving on both cost and system operating requirements over the newer Windows Vista.Skip to next paragraph
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The nonprofit model
These for-profit ventures follow in the footsteps of the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project in Cambridge, Mass. Many were skeptical when OLPC announced several years ago that it would develop and distribute small laptops to children across the developing world for $100 each.
In recent months several top executives have stepped down from OLPC, leaving some critics to wonder if its mission is still viable.
While OLPC hasn't reached its original aim of $100 PCs, it is selling its tiny laptop, called the XO, for $189, still lower than the for-profit ventures. That price includes some special educational features and software developed by OLPC for the Linux OS.
Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of OLPC, says that the XO is already Windows capable and he expects it to include a version of Microsoft's operating system in the future. He hopes the new for-profit competition will spur manufacturers to develop better technologies and drive costs even lower.
About 500,000 of the rugged, kid-friendly XO laptops have been ordered so far, with the majority already built and shipped, Mr. Negroponte says.
OLPC has seen Intel, which in January withdrew as a partner in the OLPC project, and other computer companies begin to compete for student markets in the developing world. Sometimes these companies are "dumping" their products at low prices to try to shut out OLPC, Negroponte said in late April. "Last week Asus tried that trick in Turkey," he said.
OLPC is a humanitarian effort, not a business, Negroponte says. He likens the OLPC to the World Food Program, which does not try to compete with McDonald's. "I don't want to compete with anyone," he says.
How low can prices go? OLPC is aiming for a 2.0 version of the XO that will cost only $50, Negroponte says. But don't expect that until late 2010.
Clever solution: 'dumb' computers
Meanwhile Ncomputing in Redwood City, Calif., may be the current price leader for student sales, although its product isn't a laptop. The company's device connects "dumb" terminals to a central computer. That core machine then shares its processing power with each of the networked computers.
This idea of "desktop virtualization" is not new. But what's changed is the mushrooming power of even a single PC. One bottom-of-the-line $350 desktop can act as a server for a half-dozen workstations, or more, at a cost as low as $70 per terminal, says Stephen Dukker, CEO of NComputing. And each student gets his or her own keyboard, mouse, and monitor.
Ncomputing has sold 600,000 of its devices already, says Mr. Dukker. The largest buyer has been the country of Macedonia, which bought 180,000 units for its schoolchildren. The company also has made sales in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Brazil, and a few African countries.
The "dumb" devices use only about 1 watt of power each, he says, compared with many times that much for PCs. That can be especially important in remote areas where electricity is at a premium.
The costs of maintenance and replacement are lower, too, since when a single computer is replaced or repaired it automatically upgrades or restores all the workstations attached to it.
The workstations can't be taken home by students, as with laptops, but that also means that the school's computers are less likely to be stolen or damaged, Dukker says.
"Our technology represents the beginning of the end of [cost] barriers to access to computing," he says.