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DIY $100 Laptop
Jamais Cascio, 5 Dec 05

MAKE blog has an amusing post about the beginnings of a project to make a $100 or so laptop with the main features of the One Laptop Per Child project -- portability, hand-crank & solar power, wireless network, and useful software -- using only materials gathered from sources like eBay, Freecycle, Craigslist, and the like. The object isn't to replace the OLPC computer so much as to see what can be done, now, with the detritus of a rapidly-evolving technology base.

A trip to a local used computer store will find dozens of still functional old laptops for amazingly low prices. What could we do with them to make them useful in today's world, not as Thinkpad/Powerbook replacements, but as new kinds of tools?

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Just imagine how much more they'd cost if they were to run Microsoft Windows; it's lovely to see the use of open source technologies for a project such as this. So from me, a kudos to MIT, OLPC and Nicholas Negroponte.

Posted by: Pascal Klein on 5 Dec 05

The $100 computer is vapourware (that is, a scam). Sad but true. The assumption that every person in the world needs a computer is false. Having access on the otherhand is important. Even the inventor of the hand-crank radio (sorry forgot his name) doesn't hold much respect for the MIT project.

FYI: the (so called) 3rd world doesn't need to be a clone of the 1st world. They can (and will) do better.


Posted by: Sam on 5 Dec 05

I know we all love to see old computer to get a new life. After all they were state-of-art equipment that cost lots of money initially. It is hard to imagine they have a useful life of only a few years.

But the economy of reusing old computer is hard. Let's say you got an old laptop for nothing. All you want to do to make it useful is to add wifi. These cheapest wifi card may cost something like $30. Then you'll find the battery is near dead and replacing cost a bunch, if available at all. Quickly the cost of little things adds up. That is without even considering the labor of going to ebay, matching the spec, and installing stuff, etc. On the other hand, the advantage of a new computer is the incremental cost of adding wifi is way lower than someone to do it after market.

With all the ingenuity you may duck tape together a useful system with low initial cost. But then a new system works better, have longer useful life and may end up having a lower cost in the long run. This is just the same consumable economy. It costs more to repair than to replace.

Posted by: Wai Yip Tung on 6 Dec 05

The $100 laptop is getting MIT a ton of press and donations. In that vein, it is a success indeed.

Posted by: anonaton on 8 Dec 05

"Let's say you got an old laptop for nothing. All you want to do to make it useful is to add wifi."

Tung, it need not be this complicated. Forget the Wifi. Stop thinking that because it's of no use to you it's also of no use to me. I have no laptop. A free one would serve many purposes, perhaps more effectively than my existing minitower PC. I would be able to sit at the kitchen table and work, or even work in a library. I could take it on the train, and even work in other cities. A poor battery would be a hassle, but libraries and trains have electrical service, so I could run it directly from teh mains in many places. If laptop batteries are like mobile phone batteries, then somewhere, someone still makes a compatible battery, so even a dead battery is not such a problem.

And so on. There is a market for your useless laptop. You can give it to me.

Posted by: e-tat on 8 Dec 05

Current thinking says old pcs are useless or ineconomic to repurpose. This is a fallacy - it's based primarily on the cost of refurbishing old kit, because manpower is expensive and you need to make sure it works right before you ship it to timbuctu or wherever. Oh yeah and you need a crank, or a solar panel or whatever. Plus, flying old comps out costs the earth. Right?


Granted, collection of all the old kit can be expensive. But instead of trying to make it all work right before shipping it is ludicrous! Simply toss all the bits of kit into a huge shipping container and blast it out to where it's needed. There, you have one single solitary knowledgeable chap, a workshop, and people who want pcs. You refurbish the comps where they are needed, and sell them for cost price.

Labour is very very cheap in the third world, and not only is unemployment high (meaning people want jobs) but people in these areas want more skills which can be delivered to them most easily via a computer. They'll be very happy to get a job, any job. They don't need to be skilled from the outset, because the knowledgeable chap can train them up in just a few hours, provided he remains on hand to supervise and troubleshoot.

You then sell the computers. Employees would probably be able to buy them on easy credit. For the general population, because they're fundamentally very cheap, despite poor economic conditions they will literally fly off the shelves. You only charge enough to cover the costs. At a guess you could get an old 386 up and running with a full suite of apps running linux for about $50.

When it comes to monitors a little fudging is required - old monitors are bulky, failing, and very heavy, so it's probably not economically viable to ship them with the comps. However, we've all seen how monitor prices have plummeted. I'm dead certain that these days, with the current glut in flat panel production, a simple 14" low-cost screen could be bought (in bulk, from manufacturer) for a very very low price, at a guess $30-$40. Then there's shipping on this figure; but remember, prices of screens will only fall (rapidly!) from now on.

(one issue that will have to be dealt with is privacy - hard disks will store data for as long as they last. The solution? Format, partition, install linux from an image, hey presto you're done! Provided the refurbishment process is properly established and run, the risk of data leakage is minimal. If the donors are that concerned about potential data leakage, they can spend just tens of minutes wiping the disks before they give the machines away. Anything less (on privacy grounds) is pure selfishness.)

Come on people, yesterday's technology is just as useful to those without any technology as those same machines were to us yesterday! And we're done with them, what's the harm in giving them away?

It's about time some nonprofit examined this approach in more detail, and I really really hope to see it implemented before the end of 2006. Someone? Anyone?

In hope,

Posted by: Curtis Burisch on 9 Dec 05



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