India's $10 Laptop

On February 3, the Indian government will unveil a $10 educational laptop intended to bring computing to the masses, reports the Times of India. By comparison, a computer-shaped cake pan is $20 plus shipping in the U.S. Will the $10 PC revolutionize educational computing?

First, the specs: Like a lot of cheap PCs, the device will sport 2GB of RAM, Wi-Fi and expandable hardware, and operate on a modest two watts of power. The current prototype can be produced for about $20, according to India's Secretary for Higher Education, R.P. Agarwal. Large-scale production runs should cut that price in half, he said, resulting in the $10 figure the government is touting.

That's about one tenth the cost of the cheapest available PCs in the U.S. that retail for about $100, and operate on the old razor-and-blade business model; they require costly subscriptions to mobile broadband subscriptions.

The Indian government hasn't broken down the cost of its components, but it probably cut the costs of research and development substantially by recruiting university students to help draw up the plans. Students at the Vellore Institute of Technology played a significant role, working with state-funded organizations like the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and a partially-public entity called the Semiconductor Complex. Despite a publicly-funded development, the notebooks themselves will be manufactured on contract by private companies.

According to the Times of India, the $10 laptop is a direct response to the MIT-developed nonprofit One Laptop Per Child program, that was viewed as grossly expensive in India. The OLPC devices cost about $100 each, but "hidden costs" bring that price up to around $200. OLPC has also been a victim of its own poor strategy, evidenced by recent layoffs and a failure to secure donations and orders in 2008. The program has also seen itself dwarfed by Intel's [INTC] Classmate PC program, that most recently took an order from the government of Portugal for 500,000 PCs. The company still has big plans for a next-generation touch-screen notebook, however.

To see FastCompany.com's interview with OLPC Founder Nicholas Negroponte on the development of the OLPC, click here, or watch Robert Scoble's video segment on the company's future below.

India's ultra-cheap laptop is part of a tersely-named initiative called the National Mission on Education Through Information and Communication Technology. That mission also extends to a connectivity initiative meant to get students and textbooks all over India online. India's education ministry has reportedly made deals with four publishers (Macmillan, Tata McGraw Hill, Prentice-Hall and Vikas Publishing) to provide digital textbooks and content on the $10 laptops, some of which will be accessible for free.

There's been no announcement on what kind of operating system the $10 laptop will use, but chances are it'll be a simple Linux-based GUI like the Eee PC. It probably won't be as beautiful as the elegant new Jolicloud netbook OS that made its debut this week, but hey--at $10, who could complain?

The Indian government also hasn't announced whether it will be selling the $10 notebook commercially, after it goes in to production this summer. If it does, it may not be for a long time; the ministry of education will have enough work to do distributing these notebooks and expanding connectivity in the nation's 18,000 colleges. If the government of India should sell them abroad, it may spell the end of the languishing OLPC program.

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