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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, an opinion column about consumer technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

It's premature to gauge how successful One Laptop per Child will be in its quest to build a laptop that will sell in bulk quantities for $100 (or eventually less). The consortium plans to sell large quantities of the inexpensive devices to governments, which will in turn distribute them to children in less affluent countries. Overall, it's a much better solution than a rumored counterproposal from Dell, which would have required the children to come to U.S. Post Offices to pick up the computers or be charged an extra fee.

Much of the coverage of the $100 laptop has focused on its breakthrough price. However, the initiative, should it prove successful, would not only create a revolutionary learning tool for children in developing countries, but turn notebook design on its head. Backed by disruptors such as Google and AMD and a team that includes Ted Selker, who invented the TrackPoint while at IBM, it represents a portable appliance that is in some ways more versatile – at least for schoolchildren - than notebook PCs that cost ten times as much.

The prototype shown on the project�s home page looks diminutive and light, and perhaps optimized for smaller hands. The color screen will be quite small at seven inches and the keyboard looks suspect (sealed perhaps for extended use outdoors), but the computer boasts two pen input areas � a touch screen and a handwriting input area under the keyboard that may double as a trackpad. The flexibility of the cylindrical hinge provides a number of alternative viewing modes. In addition to working as a standard clamshell usage model, tablet and e-book reader, the keyboard can be folded back behind the screens for �theater-style� presentations.

The hinge also reflects a versatile power design. It should be able to accept battery power modules as well as a hand-crank. Solar power is also being discussed as a power source. And, if that weren�t clever enough, the power cord is embedded in a cover that can double as a carrying strap.

The Linux-powered laptop would support Wi-Fi and be capable of mesh networking. Its single gigabyte of flash storage with no hard drive or optical disc helps account for its thinness. Still, while backers admit that the laptop would not be able to store a lot of data relative to today�s mainstream laptops, the prototype includes four USB ports and it would in theory be relatively easy to add storage to the system via flash drives.

Educational laptop alternatives are not a new idea, but no previous offering has come close to matching this initiative�s functionality at its price point. Perhaps the most famous was Apple�s promising but expensive $800 translucent green eMate 300 based on the Newton operating system. Brainium Technologies, nee NTS Computer Systems, sold several devices focused on helping students to learn keyboarding. Its eMatesque DreamWriter IT was based on Windows CE.

Still standing is AlphaSmart Technologies, which offers three main devices ranging from the lean, mean and (again) translucent green writing machine of the AlphaSmart 3000 to the Wi-Fi-enabled PalmOS-powered Dana. In addition to students, many writers enjoy using the products for their long battery life and ruggedness. One of my favorite AlphaSmart 3000 features is the ability to connect it to a PC or Mac via USB and simply paste the contents of the file into an open word processing document. Nonetheless, even this blissfully simple word processing tool, with its four-line LCD, lists for over $200.

The One Laptop Per Child initiative has no plans to sell its brainchild to individuals; indeed, its minimum order is a million units. But why not? Even at $200 or $300 per laptop, it would likely meet a large enough market of curiosity-seekers, second or third PC tire-kickers, hackers and disadvantaged youth in richer nations to raise funds to help subsidize distribution around the globe. And if, as co-founder Nicholas Negroponte claims, one of the organization�s largest challenges will be scaling up to hundreds of millions of units, would it not make sense to start with a smaller and familiar test market?

At least in the U.S., some schoolchildren may get their hands-on time. Helping the home team, Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has sought to purchase the laptops for all schoolchildren in MIT�s home state. Features such as the hand-cranked power and handwriting input would offer strong differentiation. For a device that dramatically undercuts the price of today�s mainstream notebook computers, One Laptop per Child�s proposed $100 laptop is more noteworthy for its capabilities and innovations than its limitations.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at
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