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Available in fetching orange and yellow, or shades of blue and green, here's the $100 laptop, which was unveiled at the Seven Countries Task Force Meeting yesterday. Almost immediately, pictures of the machine hit the net.

$100 laptop prototypes

Nicholas Negroponte heads up the One Laptop Per Child organisation which hopes to get massive orders from third world governments in order to put the devices into production. The idea is to provide every child in some developing countries with one of the machines.

Unfortunately, the organisation's website seems unable to cope with interest this morning, but it's at laptop.org when it returns.

The machines look like rubberised children's toys and include covers which swing over connection plugs. The three designs are slightly different - some include speakers and four-way controllers around the screen and some do not.

The OLPC initiative has some prominent supporters amongst vendors, with Red Hat and AMD leading the flag-waving. But significant obstacles remain. It is nice to see the laptop PCs on the net - they are a huge advance on the balsa wood model displayed at the World Summit on the Information Society last November. But will they ever be anything more than working prototypes? For OLPC's calculations on the bill of materials to add up, production has to kick off with a minimum run of five million units. Until this target has been achieved, manufacturing won't begin. OLPC is pinning its hopes on massive orders - up to a million units a pop from the big economies of the emerging world - Brazil, India, China, Nigeria. And it needs for these countries to pay for the units in advance.

As the head of one NGO told us: "To achieve this production run elected politicians in China, Brazil, India, Nigeria etc. will need to put their reputations and political careers on the line and gamble millions of dollars from already over-stretched education budgets on an unproven, Beta Ver 1.0, non-standard technology being produced by an outfit with no prior track record. I don't really expect experienced politicians to do this."

Still, OLPC is concentrating minds on supplying ICT needs for poor people in developing countries. Many analysts expect the mobile phone to be the internet access of choice in developing world. They are cheaper than PCs - and there are far more of them. And new PCs prices are coming down all the time - although admittedly, the day when Dell or HP or Lenovo sell a new laptop for $100 is some years away.

Microsoft is taking a different tack, by offering cheaper software licences to poor countries, and by offering a different mode of consumption. This week it announced its ideas for a pay-as-you-go PC, specifically for developing countries.

And then there are the millions of functioning PCs discarded in rich countries each year. It is already possible to send a P4 laptop complete with Windows or Linux software from the UK to Africa for a little over $100.

Linux International director Jon Maddog Hall this week told a conference in South Africa that refurbishing old PCs and installing open source software might be a better way to bridge the digital divide.

Hall was careful not to dismiss Negroponte's scheme, but said other solutions might work better in some areas. Read more here.

More pictures of the laptop on Flickr here. ®

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