Crackpot tech: The $100 laptop

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program hasn't fared as well as its founders may have hoped. Not only did the group considerably overshoot its targeted $100 price tag; it's been plagued with manufacturing problems and commercial competition.

That doesn't mean the dream of a sub-$100, low-power laptop is unachievable. In some ways, the OLPC's XO serves as an “alpha” model of where the PC market could head -- and not just in the developing world. In fact, the company's former CTO sees a future for low-cost, highly power-efficient machines in the commercial market.

And the more you look at the cost of outfitting enterprise end-users with computing resources beyond their needs, the less crackpot leaning on OLPC-like laptops in the enterprise will one day seem -- especially in terms of energy efficiency.

These days, a solid, all-purpose laptop averages $1,440, yet the machines pack far more power than the average end-user requires -- as much as 80 to 90 percent more. Thus, while the user takes advantage of just 10 to 20 percent of a system's power, the machine continues to draw upwards of 280 watts of energy. Beyond cutting down on the laptop’s battery life, those wasted watts translate to wasted dollars in powering the system -- and to cool rooms where PCs congregate.

The OLPC XO, on the other hand, was designed with power-efficiency in mind. Initially targeted at users with spotty access to electricity, these babies can run on less than two watts of power, resulting in an estimated battery life of 21 hours.

The tradeoff for low energy consumption is a less-powerful CPU. Yet the trend toward thin clients in the enterprise is fast proving that the average end-user can get along just fine, productivity-wise, with an inexpensive commodity processor (the XO comes with 433MHz chip) -- especially if the system isn't bogged down with a fat OS platform and applications. Thanks to the evolution of Web services, such as Google Apps and Salesforce.com, lightweight desktop apps can be supplemented or replaced, as appropriate, with a browser and ubiquitous Internet access.

Meanwhile on the platform side, even Microsoft, king of the fat OS, must foresee a future of lightweight PCs, as it is working to trim the excess code from Windows to match sleeker Linux alternatives.

They may look like toys today, but today’s “$100 laptops” may very well serve as prototypes for a significant portion of tomorrow’s enterprise computing paradigm, especially as the various trends and cost constraints of delivering apps to end-users specialize and evolve and specialize. After all, designing technology in support of policy -- as was the case with the OLPC -- should catch on in the corporate world as well, especially as companies come to realize that centering purchasing policies around energy efficiency just makes sense.

-- Ted Samson

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