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(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
In the market for a new laptop? Don't pull out your credit card just yet; if you wait just a wee bit longer, you might find yourself catching a real bargain!
How does $500 (NIS 2,000, give or take these days) sound for a fully loaded (well, probably almost) Dell laptop? Too much? Okay, how about $300 or so for a less fully loaded but Internet and word processing capable laptop that runs Windows? Still too much? Well, you could go for the $100 rival model - which will probably cost you $200 or so, since you are a resident of what is considered a non-third world country.
And then there's the $10 laptop. But you might have to learn Hindi in order to use it (I'm betting that at least some folks up there are up to the challenge, if that's what it takes to score such a bargain).
The computing world is about to change - in terms of a massive expansion of people who will be using computers - over the next several years.
There are no fewer than four major ongoing projects that promise to bring the magic of computers to all the young citizens of the world - including those living in the dire poverty of third world countries in Africa, Asia and South America.
The aim of these projects is to "empower" the vast underclasses of the third world, who are trapped in an incessant cycle of poverty because they do not have access to modern educational opportunities and technology, among other things. Although there are schools and educational programs in rural villages, as well as big cities, the vast majority of poor third world children don't take advantage of them, and drop out to go to work in order to earn money to help their families. By giving these children access to computers and the Internet, the theory behind these projects goes, poor third world children will be able to get an education outside the confines of the classroom and they will be inspired to overcome the many hardships that prevent them from pursuing the education that could be the key to breaking the cycle of poverty.
So what does this have to do with the relatively well-off people of the West? Simple - it's all about the economies of scale. Of the various organizations working to develop a program that would supply these computers to third world children, the best known is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project (http://www.laptop.org/), the brainchild of MIT's Nicholas Negroponte. The aim of the OLPC is to develop a $100 laptop (they've got it down to about $175, according to reports) that will be sturdy enough to withstand harsh third world conditions, simple enough for a kid to use and powerful enough to tap resources on the Internet that would help improve the day-to-day lives of their communities. Among the features of the OLPC XO laptop (also known as 2B1) are a 433 mhz AMD processor, 256 mb RAM, a waterproof keyboard, WiFi, a TFT color display, flash storage (instead of a hard drive) and a built-in video camera.
The original XO specs called for the machine to run on a variant of Linux, but recent reports say that some of the machines could run a low cost version of Windows. In addition, while the original idea was to provide OLPCs to the third world, a number of US states have expressed interest in getting the laptops for their students, according to the OLPC blog (http://www.olpcnews.com/).
Negroponte has traveled the world for the past several years trying to sell the idea to governments and, so far, seven have signed on. In order to get into the program, governments have to commit to buying at least a million of the machines. Of course, those who will receive the machines don't have the money to pay for them, so the money will either come out of each government's budget, or from donations in the private sector. Full scale production and delivery is expected by the end of the year.
The "private sector" could be the OLPC foundation itself. Among the plans bandied about to raise funds to pay for the program was to sell the laptops to wealthy Westerners - on condition they buy two, one for themselves and one for a third world-needy. That program, and the fact that it's unrealistic to expect that tens of millions of a product - any product - that was being given away would not end up on Ebay or a similar service, means that machines like the OLPC laptop could be coming to a store - or Web site merchant - near you.
As if that wasn't enough, processor giant Intel has its own low cost laptop package meant for poor kids. The Classmate (http://www.classmatepc.com/) PC is a "rugged learning tool" with similar features to the OLPC, except with a faster processor and more flash memory. It's also somewhat more expensive, but Intel says that the price will sink towards the magic $100 mark as production rises. And China has already begun to produce its own version of a low cost laptop (http://www.sinomanic.com/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinomanic).
And that $10 model? That could be the next big thing to come out of India's new powerhouse hi-tech industries. The government of that country has invested millions in developing its own version of the educational laptop, and it's got the cost down to $47 per unit so far - although when massively produced, the price could sink to as low as $10 per computer (http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/node/4663).
Even if, as at least OLPC and Intel have declared, they hope to be able to restrict the use of the cheap laptops to those who really need them, it's hard to imagine that the technology - and actual components - won't be used in regular "retail" versions of laptops for use by Westerners.
While many users would find the educational models too weak for substantial day to day work, many others who don't need to do more than write letters, surf the Internet, download e-mail or play games, will be attracted by their ease of use.
That could in itself fuel the price war that has been going on in the laptop business - already, Dell is going to be selling low priced laptops at discount giant Wal-mart (http://tinyurl.com/2dhyhg), and while models and prices have not been announced yet, it should be noted that Wal-mart already was selling sub-$500 notebooks three years ago and currently sells one that runs Vista (http://tinyurl.com/ywlabn), so chances are that Dell's offerings won't be priced much higher.
All good enough reasons to hold off investing in a new laptop, if you can afford to wait.