Little laptops that couldn’t

All our stuff is made of dreams, and all technological accomplishments rest on an initial imaginative leap. So tomorrow, in Tirupati, land of miracles, India will unveil a ten-dollar laptop. Developed jointly by Vellore Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Science and IIT Chennai, supported by companies like Semiconductor Complex, the laptop has reportedly been fitted out with 2GB of memory, wi-fi, ethernet, and expandable memory.

If that sounds fabulous, it probably is. Even with a huge government subsidy, it is unclear how ten dollars can get you much more than a souped-up calculator. It supposedly costs twenty dollars to manufacture, but India's massive economies of scale should drive costs down to ten dollars — roughly five hundred rupees. According to a report, "It uses a cheap microprocessor (not Intel or AMD's standard PC chips) and removes the hard disk, CD/ DVD drive and other costly and problem-prone components, leaving the keyboard, screen and USB port." But even the most rudimentary netbooks cost more than ten times as much, and it is uncertain how this laptop will manage to display most internet content or really, even cover the cost of its material components. Atanu Dey, economist and tech commentator, has been scathing in his attack on the credulous press that bought the ten-dollar boast. Most tech blogs have tagged the news in the "yeah right" category.

The ten-dollar laptop was based on a dare. When MIT Media Lab founder and Old Testament-style prophet of the new media universe, Nicholas Negroponte, started his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project promising 100-dollar laptops to children in the developing world, the HRD ministry flung the offer right back, claiming that India could produce its own cheap and best laptop. It rightly claimed that funds would be better used ramping up secondary education; and then, ludicrously added that OLPC seemed "pedagogically suspect", and that rural children were probably not up to the "physical and psychological" effects of personalised computer use.

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