India's quest to create a $10 laptop is getting a lot of press this week. Fast Company notes that the proposed design will have 2 GB of RAM, wired Ethernet, and Wi-Fi and probably will run Linux. The laptop initiative is part of India's National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology, an effort that also includes attempts to expand basic and digital literacy, extend wireless Internet access to rural areas, and provide free or low-cost access to online textbooks and other e-content.
Can India do it? The inner philanthropist hopes so, but the realist who buys technology says, "No way." Why? Component prices are simply too high. The screen for the XO laptop, which is probably the single most innovative thing OLPC has to offer, was estimated to cost $28 per unit, in volume, by Merrill Lynch. OLPC has said that the complete motherboard/CPU package will cost roughly $75, and based on the Merrill Lynch estimates, it looks as though a third of that cost will be for the CPU alone. In other words, the CPU itself, the motherboard, the screen, the NAND flash storage, and the RAM... each of these costs more than $10 to manufacture for inclusion in the OLPC. India's $10 price hopes appear to be nothing more than pure fantasy.
Contrary to these assertions, however, India is claiming that the actual cost of the laptop currently is $20 (or $47 if you factor in labor costs?). The hope is that mass production will bring down the price to the desired $10.
I don't know if India can do this or not. The country already has served as the place of origin for the $2,500 car and the $20 cell phone. But one only has to look at the difficulties of the One Laptop Per Child project to see that India's quest is quite daunting.
In the end, it may not matter whether the cost of India's laptop is $10, $20, or $50. The bigger picture is that countries, companies, and other organizations are working really hard to come up with low-cost computing devices that expand access to the global information society. Like TIME magazine said back in 2006, this is going to be a good thing:
We're looking at an explosion of productivity and innovation, and it's just getting started, as millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy.
I'm excited about the future of all of this. The next few decades are going to be interesting!