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OLPC designers claim to have cracked the toughest problems they faced. When the laptop is not plugged in, it can be powered by means of a foot pedal (or pull string, depending on the final decision) that will generate 10 minutes of power for every minute of exertion. Out of the box, the laptops will connect with one another to form a mesh network that will make each computer a transmission node, allowing the laptops to talk to each other and greatly magnifying the range of any Internet connection. And the screen will have both a high-resolution black-and-white mode, in which it will be readable even in bright sun, and a backlit, lower-resolution color mode. The designers say the display will be at least as readable as today’s LCD screens but use far less power, and they expect it to cost about $35, which is roughly a quarter of what a typical screen costs today. It will be a very small screen for a laptop–seven and a half inches–but if it works, it will represent a genuine engineering breakthrough.

Nevertheless, the $100 laptop is not yet a reality. (In fact, the name is something of a misnomer: for more than a year now, Negroponte has been predicting an initial cost of closer to $150, though he expects that, as with most electronic products, the laptop’s price will fall as time goes on and units are produced in greater volume.) OLPC has yet to demonstrate a working version of the laptop; Negroponte says that the first working models, so-called B machines, will come off the assembly line in November, after which they’ll be put through a torture course of testing in five developing countries–Brazil, Argentina, Libya, Thailand, and Nigeria–to see how they hold up. And even if they do work, the task of persuading governments to buy them still remains. Negroponte has made real progress on this front. In October, Libya signed a memorandum of understanding that effectively commits it to buying a million laptops, assuming the B machines pass their tests, and the other four test nations seem nearly as likely to sign up if the machines work as planned. But five million laptops is, by OLPC’s self-defined standards, just a start. No matter how well things go in the next few months, Negroponte can almost certainly count on continuing to spend a great deal of time negotiating with government ministers around the globe. In that sense, just as we’re waiting to see whether OLPC’s laptop will work, we’re waiting to see whether its “business” model will work, too. If it doesn’t, the project will be remembered as an interesting side note in the history of computing. If it does, OLPC will become integral to one of the more remarkable narratives of the past decade: the revolution in philanthropy.

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Credit: Illustration by Tara Hardy, Colagene.com

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