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In May, at the Wall Street Journal’s D3 conference outside San Diego (an event attended by technology princes like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs), I saw the elements of a computer that, if it were built, would wonderfully improve the fortunes of poor children.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder and chairman of MIT’s Media Lab, showed attendees the screen of the Hundred-Dollar Laptop, or HDL. Beginning in 2006, he said, he would build 100 million to 200 million HDLs every year – and distribute them to the children of the poor world. Many attendees had read about Negroponte’s idea and dismissed it as quixotic. Hearing how an HDL might be built, seeing a part of it, and realizing the scale of the project produced a rustle of delighted interest.

Negroponte recently wrote to me about what he hoped the HDL would do: “Education: one laptop per child. Whatever big problem you can imagine, from world peace to the environment to hunger to poverty, the solution always includes education. We need to depend more on peer-to-peer and self-driven learning. The laptop is one important means of doing that.”

Can a $100 computer be built? Maybe. Negroponte does not plan to use three expensive components of conventional laptops: Microsoft Windows, a traditional flat-panel screen, and a hard drive. Instead, the HDL will be loaded with Linux and other open-source software; its display will use either a rear-projection screen or a type of electronic ink invented at the MIT Media Lab; and it will store one gigabyte’s worth of files in flash memory.

The HDL has a number of other, intriguing features. Since many villages in the poor world do not have electricity, the machines may be powered by either a crank or “parasitic power” – that is, typing. Once turned on, HDLs will automatically connect to one another using a “mesh network” initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. In the mesh network each laptop serves as an information-relaying node. Households that have HDLs will be able to communicate with each other by e-mail or voice calls.

Most importantly, Negroponte wants every mesh network to have access to the Internet. The laptops will be loaded with Skype, a communications application that provides free telephone calls. Consider: the most forlorn parts of the globe might become part of the wider world.

The most vital part of the plan is also, perhaps, the most challenging. Internet access is not cheap in the poor world; infrastructure is fragile and expensive to maintain. When I challenged Negroponte about this “hidden cost,” he conceded, “[This is] a very real issue. We are looking at ways to spend less than $1 per month per child.”

At first glance, Negroponte’s economics seem rational enough. The HDL will not be sold commercially; instead, education ministries and other government agencies will purchase it. Profits will be very limited: merely $10 per machine for equipment manufacturers. Of course, building a laptop for $100 demands what economists call “economies of scale.” Negroponte’s pilot project requires commitments for at least six million orders. So far, China has expressed an interest in buying two million machines, and Brazil one million. At least at first, the machines would be built in China, where Negroponte has been talking to manufacturers.

Not everyone is convinced. On the record, few are willing to cast doubt on such a worthy project, but some informed people to whom I spoke wondered whether the Chinese were accurately estimating the costs of manufacturing the HDL.

But most people, like D3’s attendees, are excited by the prospect of the HDL. Why? Because it represents something of a second chance. Nothing much came of attempts in the late 1990s to address inequities in the distribution of information technologies; bridging the “digital divide” is no longer a fashionable cause. But the divide is real enough for all that. According to the World Bank, the number of Internet users per capita in the poor world is 40 percent that of the rest of the world. The rich world has three times as many computers than the poor. For more than five billion people, the Internet is only a rumor. Inevitably, poor children are the biggest losers: their lives are pathetically circumscribed. While they need clean water, food, and health care, they also need education and more-expansive horizons.

Attempts to bridge the digital divide failed because there was no bridge. Nicholas Negroponte’s Hundred-Dollar Laptop could be that bridge. Do you think the HDL can be built? Write and tell me at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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