Nicholas Negroponte has a problem.

He has a truly amazing product at a blockbuster price — a high-powered, full-featured laptop for $188. The trouble is, he needs an enormous global market to make it an amazing success.

Negroponte, a MIT geek, put his hugely successful career on hold to become chairman of "One Laptop Per Child," a groundbreaking product to get a laptop in the hands of every child in the world.

Yes, he hears your comments all the time — comments like, "Wait, these kids don't have food or water. Why not give them that instead of a computer? A laptop in the desert? It will last a second and then someone will break it. They will get stolen. There is no power in the desert." And on and on.

Negroponte listens patiently to all the critics and answers them immediately. A laptop, a nearly unbreakable one, is an educational tool. It doesn't need electricity from a wall and can be recharged via solar power, a crank, a pull cord or a pedal. It won't break. It will connect to any other laptop nearby for an ad-hoc network to the Internet, making any laptop in the area its own wireless router for all of the others. If stolen from a child, it is deactivated and won't work. The 7.5-inch screen is bright in direct sunlight. It won't need tech support and doesn't run Windows. It has only two internal cables and no hard drive. In short, it's a handheld technological miracle.

The OLPC program is among the most impressive I have ever seen. This group, which expects the price of the first model, the XO, to drop to $100 after volume manufacturing, has created a masterpiece of engineering. Before you blow this off as another gimmick, I urge you to examine the group's Web site, www.laptop.org.

Of course, everyone who touches one wants one. So Negroponte has come up with a marketing gem as well. Starting Nov. 12, you can buy one for yourself or a child during a very brief retail window. The catch? If you buy one, you have to gift one for a child in Peru. So for $399, you get a XO for yourself and the same model is donated in your name. You can deduct the value of the second one and know you are doing a great deed for mankind.

Of course, for a donation of $200, you can assure a deserving child gets an XO if you don't want one for yourself. To register for both programs, go to www.xogiving.org.

How is this project going to affect you? What this team is learning is going to flow to commercial laptops, I am convinced. Why does this one have a brighter display than any Dell, Apple or HP yet have the battery last 23 hours? How can you make a commercial device that doesn't have moving parts and no hard drive and can network with any device within a mile?

In short, this project has to succeed, and I hope that many Americans step up and get this project rolling.


James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer repair firm, and tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is [email protected].