Rory Cellan-Jones

What happened to the $20 laptop?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 6 Feb 09, 09:40 GMT

The week began with a great story. The Indian government was going to build a $20 (or maybe even $10) laptop, finally bringing cheap computing to the masses, in a manner which had eluded projects like One Laptop Per Child.

The only problem was that the "$20 laptop" turned out to be no such thing - it's not a laptop and it's not clear exactly what it is, when it will appear or what it wil cost. But the world's technology journalists fell for the story - along with the BBC - so how did that happen?

Financial Times articleIt was all triggered by an article in the Financial Times on Monday. This claimed that the device would be launched at an education event on Tuesday, and compared the $20 laptop to India's $2000 car - although that too has so far failed to appear, some years after it was promised. The FT's article went round the world at the speed of light, and my editors - and I suspect others - were soon asking why we hadn't got the story.

But on the Tuesday, when the press conference happened in the town of Tirupati, the miracle gizmo turned out to be a prototype of a handheld device, rather than a laptop. The aim of the device, under development by local universities, was to use technology to bring education to millions of new students across India.

And the price? Well, that was pretty unclear. It might be $20, it might be $10, depending on production volumes, and presumably the level of government subsidy. The only photo to have emerged appears to show a solid white rectangular object, without a display or a keyboard.

I've spoken to the author of the FT article, James Lamont, who told me that reports about a laptop had actually surfaced first in the Indian press last week after a briefing by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. It appears that the ministry official, perhaps not technically aware, used the word laptop in that briefing to describe an e-learning device.

That was enough to turn an interesting educational initiative by the Indian government into a story that sparked worldwide interest amongst the techie community. Now it has turned out to be less than it appeared, many of my fellow journalists and bloggers have reacted with contempt. Engadget talked of "purposeful misinformation" by politicians seeking re-election, while the Times of India quoted a university researcher as saying "The entire world was watching. This act.....has shamed the nation."

But perhaps this is a little unfair. The Indian government, James Lamont told me, is faced with a massive educational challenge, needing to create as many as 1500 new universities over the next six years. It seems to be deadly serious about using technology to bridge its educational gap.

The price of computing is coming down - though $20 seems a bit of a stretch, with component makers rushing to explain that you won't even get a screen for that price. And aren't we getting hung up on the idea of a laptop? It is mobile phones that are really proving to be the transformational technology in developing countries. If Indian researchers can come up with a $20 mobile internet device to put millions of students online, then they really will deserve global headlines.


  • Comment number 1.

    Netbooks are definitely headed sub $100. Screens will move away from LED to lithographic methods that are very cheap to produce. The Atom processor will get cheaper but ARM chips are getting more powerful, either way processing power won't cost much. RAM is cheap and getting cheaper and you can use cheap Flash memory instead of a hard disk.
    Netbooks are currently the fastest growing area of computing. As prices drop this will snowball till they become as ubiquitous as mobile phones already are.

    It is not just the hardware, the massive growth of Moodle, in many languages, make true online learning an increasing reality.

  • Comment number 2.

    It looks to be a very interesting initiative. Something along the lines of a netbook could prove an important boost to literacy and give cheap access to very important educational resources.
    One word of warning: if the device, when it finally appears, is too powerful, the Indian Government will find it has simply given a whole generation access to the possibilities of online gaming. I have students who freely admit to spending 30-40 hours a week playing on laptops made available to them (at a discount) by the school.
    I know it makes me sound my age, but it's astonishing how dull, isolated, ill-informed, illiterate, unmotivated, incurious and generally zombie-like an apparently privileged child can be...

  • Comment number 3.

    Not like the BBC to fall for fairy stories. ;-)

  • Comment number 4.

    To good to be true, then it probably is....

    I must admit I expected a laptop watch or something....

  • Comment number 5.

    Yeah what happened?
    Isnt the media is jumping guns on any news?
    News Hungry reporters and media are the spoil sport for good and worst news... similar this time too.
    There was no govt. offical making a statment; one new paper thinks (out of blue) that its a revolutionary idea (and without going into tech specs) and they put it down and dumwits news agencies follow-suit...

    I am laughting to see how media can be so lame...

  • Comment number 6.

    I remember this article about the cheap laptop very clearly as I actually forwarded it on to further people to read.

    It quite surprised me to read that if this was do-able in India so what have the Japanese and Chinese techies been doing all this time.

    However, not to go off track from the main topic. It might actually be cheap to manufacture something that is priced at $20/- but there will still be alot of costs associated to implement such technology for educational purposes. What the Indian government has failed to outline is that what basic web-sites is it plannig to host for the pupils to access.

    Having a hand-held or a laptop will not necessarily result in the learning of anything for anyone unless there is a proper channel for them to follow this through.

  • Comment number 7.

    When i came across the news for the first time and the later reports on the product i remembered a story reported by some of the newspapers a few years ago telling that a boy of 8 years old made an Operating System for a computer and the product is equal or better and faster than Windows. Anyone who knew the processes an Operating System used to take care of laughed away the news.

    Reading the news i was wondering what are they going to produce for a price of 10$ to 20$ when the product should carry a minimum set of components and interfaces that are expensive in the open market. But when i read about the government sponsorship and and later saw the picture in BBC NEWS on 3rd February i got curious and was waiting to see what is going to happen.

    Now i am just wondering of the whole story was the imagination of the reporter? Did the development team or the sponsors ever claimed that they are going to build a Laptop? I was imagining that it should be supporting a web browser so that applications all web applications will work on the system. I could not imagine another cheaper way of bringing in useful information on the device useful for students.

    But finally there was nothing presentable. Even to appreciate the basic works done on the system we need more information. I strongly feel that someone made a big mistake.

    Waiting to hear more on this.

    Crowly Mathew, Kerala, India
    [Personal details removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think laptop is a wrong word. This is more like desk-top/net-top/nano-top without screen and keyboard. hope it has processor, otherwise $30 is too-high for wi-fi modem.

  • Comment number 10.

    "and compared the $20 laptop to India's $2000 car - although that too has so far failed to appear, some years after it was promised."

    Mr jones i think u have to take realities into effect very seriously the tata nano car's prototype was indeed completed and presented at the delhi's auto show check out this link from BBC itself

  • Comment number 11.

    I think that the 20 US Dollar laptop idea, went away, to be reform and look-at again.

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 12.

    I actually think $20 laptop/mobile computer is a possibility. The cost of materials in a computer is small, the real expense is in the intellectual property and R&D costs.

  • Comment number 13.

    (Checking wikipedia and Tata on the Nano, production is scheduled in two centres this year, but there is uncertainty, probably due mainly to the worldwide economic crisis.)

    Rory: is that really 1,500 universities in 6 years? A staggering number. I cannot imagine how any nation could meet that demand.

    India needs innovative uses of IT to solve such an enormous challenge in education. If not this product, then others.

  • Comment number 14.

    Isn't this yet another example of maths-challenged journalists reporting on technical subjects of which they have not the slightest clue? The public has been mightily misled by such nonsense over the past decade.

  • Comment number 15.

    World shouldnt be afraid about the developments being made in India. Its in everybodies interest people from every part of country are visiting India for jobs coz deres a recession going on in western part of world with a very little effect on India so ur welcomed, but with a good attitude.

  • Comment number 16.

    It looks as if the Indians have something to produce, but not a laptop and very probably not that cheap, though they seem to hope that mass production will bring costs down. It seems to be intended for distribution to schools, not for general sale.

    What they appear to have is a very small (5" x 10" screen) hand-held device with Flash memory, pre-loaded e-books and some web connectivity that will also enable access to an e-learning portal - Sakshat - that's also being developed.
    Essentially it consists of a Flash hard drive plus a screen, keyboard, touch-pad, WiFi connectivity and presumably an (Indian) OS and applications such as a PDF reader, browser, text editor.

    Indian technology lags behind that of Japan, America and Europe. This device is embryonic R and D, but its real significance may be that India is developing indigenous skills rather than buying in technology from aboard.

  • Comment number 17.

    20 Dollars BC? [that's Before Creditcrunch]
    Nowadays $20 will probably get you the plastic wrapping to transport it in...

    Anyway, India. Things are pretty cheap out there, and internet speeds are reasonable in the cities, so a hand-held device with little memory but powerful enough to connect to the web will probably be their aim.

    However, those with good jobs will probably not need it/have something already, and for those without it will remain, sadly, a distant dream...

  • Comment number 18.

    You have all lost your brains? A twenty dollar laptop that may become $10?!? Even the Linux operating system costs more than this!

    This is so preposterous that my head explodes every time someone asks me with a knowing gleam of idiocy in their eyes "hey, did you hear they are producing a $20 laptop?" - I respond "did you know the sun revolves around the earth?" and with a similar serious intent they say "yes".

    I can understand why some journalists are upset as ANY Journalist that fell for this garbage means they have zero understanding of the IT industry, knowledge of business realities and common sense and therefore should have less job security than yesterday. We all can only hope....

  • Comment number 19.

    The only way it could be $20s is if it's subsidised by the Govt.
    As for the announcement, bear in mind there are elections coming up: ya know - politicians!

    A sobering fact is that around half of India's population in aged 25yrs or under, but only 1% have access to formal education and the best tech graduates all get head-hunted away from India by overseas companies.

    India seriously lags behind its main rival, China, in technology, education and internet connectivity. It's going to take more than laptops, be they sold at $100 or $20, to tackle these problems.
    Building the infrastructure for greater connectivity and wider access to education in such a large country is a bigger challenge.

  • Comment number 20.

    if 70% of the country still live on around a dollar a day, even a $20 lapnetbooktablettop will still be a stretch. I certainly couldnt afford 20 days of my pay to buy something (that i assume to someone on a dollar a day) would be a massive extravagance, considering food and clean water is probably their greatest concern.

    Archos did a PMA a few years back with linux on it, i though it was excellent. i bet they could easy beat the olpc with that if they minus'd the hdd and when with cheap flash


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