Inexpensive windup laptop could help poor countries: prof

A windup laptop computer that would sell for about $116 is among a new category of gadgets being developed that could help stretch aid dollars for impoverished nations, according to an MIT professor.

A windup laptop computer that would sell for about $116 Cdn is among a new category of gadgets being developed that could help stretch funding for impoverished countries, according to an MIT professor.

Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, introduced a prototype of his plug-free computer at an international technology conference in September.

Negroponte hopes to begin production by February as part of his non-profit campaign One Laptop Per Child.

At a recent conference, he discussed the impact of bringing computers to a remote village in Cambodia with no electricity.

"In that village, the first English word of every kid was Google," he said.

Negroponte believes even the poorest areas of the world can benefit from tapping into search engines, reading electronic books online and learning about the broader world.

"If you think of any big-world problem, whether it's peace, poverty or the environment, whatever solutions there are, they include education."

The laptops are a combination of conventional computer and electronic book, powered by a windup crank and requiring low amounts of power.

They can be controlled using a cursor at the back of the machine or a touchpad on the front. The computers can even function as a TV.

Negroponte has received commitments from China and Brazil to give laptops to schoolchildren in areas without roads or electricity. He said the computers could save money, since cash-strapped governments wouldn't have to pay to produce printed textbooks.

The biggest issue in developing the laptops was how to create a computer screen that required minimal power. The other concern – price – was easily addressed by eliminating costs associated with sales, marketing, distribution and profit, said Negroponte.

Other gadgets such as cellphones that are already familiar to most people in the West could also revolutionize the developing world, and could prove even more useful than a windup computer, according to Richard Fuchs of Canada's International Development Research Centre.

"We think the actual poor person's computer is already in people's hands – and that's the mobile phone," said Fuchs, director of information and communication technologies development.

One example, he said, is a Canadian-funded project in Africa, where women used cellphones to send information back to their farmer husbands about which crops were fetching the best prices.

"The result was, on average, the farmers made more than $200 a month. And after a year on this project, all the farmers decided to buy a cellphone," Fuchs said.