Friday, December 02, 2005

The broken part of MIT's $100 laptop.

Those well-heeled Boston geeks at MIT have been working hard to produce a aimed at kids in poor countries. The idea is to have governments (and such) buy lots of them and distribute them to the kids, who obviously couldn't afford the $100, and thus try to diminish the Digital Divide. But there's a fatal flaw in this scheme: they won't sell them to consumers. I remember once, a long time ago, when I was a kid and times were very tough financially, we got some free cheese from the government. It was cheese and we ate it. In a quesadilla it wasn't too awful. It didn't taste as good as the cheese you'd normally buy, but it was much better to have free cheese than no cheese at all. But in retrospect I think it would have been a lot better for all the families getting free cheese if that same cheese was available in the store, and just very cheap. Let's say it's the lowest-end cheese available and only poor people buy it, and if you're really poor you can get it free somewhere. Psychologically a whole lot better, and better in other ways too. For something like a computer, the same logic applies tenfold. First, by not letting people sell it MIT is telling us it's not really a $100 laptop, it's a laptop they decided to attach that number to no matter what it costs. If you can't make a profit selling the things for $100, then you're just playing with the numbers. The most important problem, though, is that if we can't get them in rich countries, they will suck. Uh-oh, I've committed the cardinal sin of insulting Mr. Negroponte's intelligence. Now Google won't buy this blog. Damn! Seriously, Mr. N, have you not heard of this Internet Thing? You want your $100 laptop to run Linux, but you don't seem to have given much thought to what makes Linux great. It's the hackers, stupid. I truly hope that one day it's every bit as normal for a hacker to come from Khartoum or Kandahar as from Moscow or Palo Alto. But you're going to get a lot further towards that goal if the hackers in Palo Alto and Moscow are playing with the same computer you're handing out to the kids in Kandahar and Khartoum. Granted, it may be more of a toy than a laptop to someone in Cambridge. But hackers love computing toys even more than they love fancy computers. Of course all the computing experts behind this project are helping, and of course you need to give it to people with good solid purpose-built software to get them started. But if you think your experts are better than all the basement hackers out there, you haven't been paying attention. Enough griping. Here's my solution to this problem. Apply with cluebat.
  1. Figure out how much the things really cost, wholesale, with normal shipping etc., in reasonable numbers (not a million units at a time, guys).
  2. Create a nonprofit to sell them.
  3. Set a retail price that's as cheap as possible but truly covers all your costs.
  4. Partner with someone (Amazon?) good at online sales and fulfillment.
  5. Watch as the world of hackers saves your idea from oblivion.

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