Flashback four CES shows ago:
I’m sitting at a bar in the Venetian next to an executive from chip maker Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), who (after a few beers) begins decrying the retreat of Bill Gates and Microsoft from a partnership to mass produce the much celebrated $100 laptop, The XO. The one designed for the One Laptop Per Child program launched by MIT professor ans digital guru Nicholas Negroponte.
In her words, Gates made a harsh pronouncement : That, in reality, there already was a $100 laptop, and it was called “the smartphone”.
Harsh perhaps, but he wasn’t wrong. The $100 laptop ingeniously took into account needs for durability in sandy and wet conditions, lack of access to wireless and had solar power. It was intended to bring computing power to the poorest of the world’s citizens, particularly in places like India and Africa. The hook for a time was that donate one/get one, which more often meant the organization chose where the first one went and you got to donate the second. Critics of the model often cited that it was unsustainable because as a practical matter, the price of the components was really $200. Critics of the critics suggested that the big guys saw the laptop cutting into a potential buying audience.
But since then, Gates has been proven right, and it’s been those places and those poor people who have reshaped what is possible for cellphones, utilizing them in ways never imagined, closing gaps in distance and creating new economies from the kinds of cheap mobile products we threw away five phones ago.
Jump to CES2012 and the One Laptop per Child people are back now with a $100 tablet, the XO 3.0. Like its laptop predecessor, it is designed to be durable through harsh environments. It too has solar capability and a crank for hand power. While the laptop version relied on self-contained Sugar software driven by Linux, the tablet is powered by Android.
Once again, however, timing is everything and technology is the fastest-growing industry in the places this new computer seeks a market, even if it’s a charitable market. The bigger question in those areas is one of access to connections.
The argument might also be made that with Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet and a whole industry of lesser companies fighting to beat Apple’s iPad on marketshare, $100 for a tablet might not be so far away as a basic retail price. Even now that $100 only beats the Kindle Fire by half.
Innovative and forward-thinking as it is, is the $100 tablet – like the laptop- a little too late?