St. Nick and the $100 Laptop

I spent some hands-on time with OLPC’s $100 laptop last night during a dinner here in Davos, and it exceeded my already-high expectations. The latest design is the cutest computer since the original 128k Mac and versatile as well – for example, twist the screen and it transforms into a nifty reader (see below) complete with a handle in the right place. Now “cute” may seem frivolous, but consistent with Negroponte’s rigorous thinking of the entire concept, cute is essential. As he explained, the way one keeps these computers from being broken is to make the kids fall in love with them, to keep them close by and generally make them their own. “No one ever washes a rented car,” and thus to survive these little computers need to be intimate companions of loving owners.

Other neat details include a robust self-organizing mesh network that allows interesting communication possibilities among local machines. For example, Nick demonstrated how one computer could remotely control other computers to generate music (the computer has a top-notch music synthesizer built in) by turning a quartet of computers into separate musical instruments playing in perfect sync. And the basics are darn impressive: a terrific color screen, robust keyboard (I watched as the person next to me poured a glass of water onto it with no ill effect) and lots of elegant interface details that can be customized for various uses.

I could go on and on about everything that makes this innovative machine wonderful, but the top line is that I am more convinced than ever that the $100 laptop is going to have a dramatic impact, either directly in terms of units deployed, or indirectly in terms of inspiring others to sell radically low-cost connected information devices.

OLPC plans to put 1 million computers into the hands of kids in the first 12 months, and do it in a way that will ensure that the computers are actually used and integrated into the lives of the students and their community. It is an ambitious goal, and Vint Cerf summed it up nicely when he told Negroponte that the world is going to give him a new name for what he is doing – St. Nick.