The One Laptop Per Child non-profit headed up by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte is coming up against its self-imposed deadline of May 31 to secure three million orders for its little green computers. Lots of developing countries have shown interest, but none have yet signed on the dotted line. In a 60 Minutes segment, Negroponte accuses Intel of trying to scuttle One Laptop Per Child's chances of success by pushing its own $400 Classmate laptop to the same education ministries around the globe.
Even at $176 per laptop, government officials in places like Brazil or Cambodia are understandably wary of spending scarce funds on an unproven technology. Maybe Negroponte should pound the drum harder not just on the affordability of his laptops, but on how they are also much more environmentally friendly than the alternatives.
One Laptop Per Child's chief technology officer Mary Lou Jepsen attended a Disruptors roundtable I held three weeks ago at MIT, where she pulled out a $5 flexible solar panel her team had designed to help power up the laptops. The day before I had visited her at One Laptop's offices, where she took me through many of the features of the computer.
If every computer on the planet were replaced with one of these, she calculates it would save at least
$11 $8.5 billion in electricity costs alone. These little laptops are so energy efficient that they are designed to run for 8 to 10 hours on a single charge. They can do that in part because they are so stripped down—with no hard drives and screens that can use the sun as their light source—and in part because the computer shuts down anything that is not being used at that moment. So there is no idling, which drains the battery.
In addition to the solar panel, Jepsen's team is also exploring other accessories for charging the laptops off the grid in a pinch, including hand cranks, foot pedals, car-battery chargers, and a pull-string device that looks like a giant yo-yo. (Sadly, I accidentally broke one of the yo-yo prototypes by yanking it too hard. Yes, I do feel like a total jerk who is now depriving some kids in Cambodia of a way to keep their laptops running. But, in my defense, that string was pretty flimsy).
So how green is this computer? In comparison to a typical laptop, the One Laptop design is:
—Half the weight
—Half the size
—Free of any mercury, cadmium, lead, or other hazardous substances
—Uses one third as many parts
—Consumes one-tenth as much power
—Promises four times more total battery life
Take that Intel (and Apple, for that matter).