The Next Reimportation Dilemma


MIT has been working to develop an ultra-cheap laptop that would put computers in the hands of people around the world who are currently very far away from being able to afford such a thing. CNet has some prototype images up. The images hint at the range of features, with the clever notion of a hand-crank for areas lacking in electricity, but also including tablet-like functionality.

Why do I get the feeling that, if these things are anywhere near $100 a piece, as is proposed, there will be a huge demand for them throughout the developed world? I can't be the only student who would have loved a tablet for note-taking with a power supply I can refresh right before class starts. How long after launch would you guess there would be websites offering to sell them near developing-world prices? And how soon thereafter should we expect frothy calls for legislation to either support or ban laptop reimportation?


Getting computer power into the hands of developing world consumers can follow either of two paths - 'down' from laptops or 'up' from wirelss phones.

The down from laptops model, ala this example, the 'simputer' and others, posits a low cost stripped down, feature deprived, free-OS laptop/tablet.

The up from wireless phones model posits that computer-like-features will become ever cheaper and easier to implement on ever-more affordable wireless handsets.

Both can happen at the same time, and in any event the devices that emerge a few generations down the road are likely to be the same, but my money is litteraly on the up from handsets model. Why? Most anyone who has a $100 to spend and must choose between voice connectivity and computing will always pick the voice option. Internet cafes are becomming ever more popular in even very poor areas and allow poeple to pay to use computers on an as-needed basis.

And you (and the people you talk to) don't need to able to read and write to use a cell phone - but they do if you wnat to use a PC.

As for first world consumers, you can get your low priced stripped down, feature deprived, free-OS laptop/tablet simply by buying older hardware on the re-sale market - complete with extra batteries, no hand crank needed.

Jos -- all good points. But I'm still saying this could turn into a hot item, if only for the "statement". The hand-crank idea alone might attract a whole slew of college kids looking to be more eco-friendly. Then there are those, like myself, given to regular bouts of techno-lust that would just want one for the commute to read a book, make notes, watch a DVD, etc.

In fact, I think MIT is anticipating this. On the last page of images, where they show the shoulder strap functioning as a power cord, the drawing is an iPod and a wallet-chain away from being an urban hipster, rather than the potential villager in a developing country.

Freeplay makes a wind-up charger for cell phones - it's not very popular, especially in urban areas. Why? "forty-five seconds of winding (direct charge) provides about three minutes of call time" probably has something to do with it. Simply too much work-for-reward for most people that I know - urban hipsters especially.

Even a short investigation into power needs vs. what chargers can produce shows that s wind up charger for a laptop doesn't make a whole lot of sense - the power requirements are much, much higher, so getting a useful charge will take much more cranking than any urban hipster is likely to want to do.

Freeplay is working on a foot powered charger that puts out 12V DC, but it will aimed primarily at the medical/emergency services market and thus be pretty expensive. And I really don't see urban hiptsers wanting to carry arround a big ole foot charger, let alone actually use it, when, as urban hipster, they are probably seldom more than a hundred feet away from an electrical power source.


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This page contains a single entry by published on September 28, 2005 1:20 PM.

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