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The $20 Laptop that Wasn’t

India’s gadget looks more like a modem.
February 4, 2009

It turns out that India’s “$20 laptop” – a gadget meant to cheaply deliver online educational content to students at more than 18,000 Indian colleges – may actually be more of a handheld web access device than a laptop computer. According to the image (left) obtained by Hindu Times it is roughly 10 inches long and five inches wide, with a small screen in the middle and no visible keyboard. Indian government officials have said it has two gigabytes of random-access memory and both Ethernet and wireless Internet access, and consumes 2 watts of power. But, beyond that, there haven’t been many details.

Credit: Hindu Times

So I asked Vivek Pai, a Princeton computer scientist, what he made of the gadget. Scrutinizing a photo of the mysterious electronic block he noted that, while details were still slim, it’s “definitely not something that would be called a laptop.”

He offered three speculative possibilities on what it might be. He said it might be a “data brick of some sort” – a shared fileserver for laptops– or “maybe a wired/wireless router and some shared storage.” Noting that four wires snaked away from the block, he added that it was possible that the wires might be for power, Ethernet, a keyboard, and for video.

The prototype was shown Tuesday by government ministers at an Indian university during the launch of an government effort called the National Mission on Education through Information and Computer Technology. According to Indian press reports, the cost is now pegged at between $20 and $30. But it’s still not clear to what extent government subsidies may be keeping the price low.

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