Intel has jumped on the cheap laptop bandwagon with its $400 Eduwise computer. Aimed at the developing world, Intel’s stated goal is to "not only extend affordable PC access but to develop the right PCs tailored to local needs" (background). They’re clearly taking a shot at Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop, which received a lot of attention last year due to its affordable cost and unusual design. During the unveiling, Intel CEO Paul Otelini commented, "nobody wants to cross the digital divide using yesterday’s technology."

Though tech specifics for the laptop haven’t been released, it does have a 7 inch display and built-in wireless networking. Most reports are much more concerned with the design than the functionality ("The flip-open Eduwise computer includes a handle, light blue accents, and snaps shut like a purse," according to eSchool News).

Of course, no one’s talking about making real differences. There are 694 million people on the Internet worldwide, less than 12% of the world’s population. According to Stephen Abram, half of the world’s population has never even seen a telephone. It’s nice that Intel wants to sell these people $400 laptops, but I think they’d rather have clean water and vaccinations and nutritious food. I’ve always thought it’s kind of ridiculous to put Wifi-enabled laptops in the African savannah. When the nearest hotspot is 1,000 miles away, it’s not going to be very useful without a really good antenna.

Neither Intel nor OLPC (Negroponte’s organization) is actually making these things. They’re still at the prototype stage. The OLPC laptop is expected to be in production in early 2007. Intel plans to make its model available later this year. Neither product will be available in the US market, though Intel has not ruled out the possibility of eventually selling these to American schools.

That’s what all the buzz is really about. Schools are drooling over the price tag, and grand visions of affordable 1:1 initiatives are starting to take root. But it’s not going to happen. Why? First of all, $400 is too much money. If I wanted to equip, say, all my high school students with $400 computers, it would cost about $600,000. If I phased it in over four years, that’s still $150,000 per year. That’s more than my hardware budget for the entire district, and I’m in an affluent suburban community. Add to that the fact that we would need some serious infrastructure improvements (the two wireless access points currently in the high school wouldn’t cut it), and substantial tech support, and it becomes really unfeasible.

I’m not saying that no one could do it. Some schools could afford to do this, and others (maybe even ours) could redirect funds from other sources, start a community initiative, and maybe even charge the students for a portion of the cost. But look what you get for the money: There’s no hard drive, no optical drive, very little memory, and a seven-inch screen. You can’t very easily customize the software installation (no hard drive, did I mention that?). You end up with a product that’s less powerful than a Palm pilot.

Apple tried to do the same thing with the eMate 300 in the late ’90s. It was an affordable ($800, when most laptops were $2,000) laptop for education. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised.