On the XO Laptop

The XO Laptop and the Era of the Two Hundred Dollar Computer

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[First published as The Two Hundred Dollar Computer on November 13, 2007.]

I bought a desktop about eight years ago using my IBM employee discount. I recall it cost about $2000. This was not surprising, as for a number of years the cost of a good desktop ran from $2000-$3000, with the price holding constant while providing ever-improving performance, thanks to the ongoing application of Moore’s Law.

Moore’s Law is relentless. It’ held true for over four decades, and the end is not yet in sight. Similar laws apply to the development of disk technology and other associated technologies. For example, while giving blood at my synagogue this past Sunday, I ran into Art, a fellow member of our Temple’s Brotherhood. I asked what he did for a living, and learned that he works for a Japanese company that makes valves that are used in the machines that are used to make chips.

I mentioned that, as part of my job, I had made several visits to IBM’s site in East Fishkill, New York, where I had seen a building about the size of a football field. It cost well over a billion dollars to put together, and is used to make the chips for the XBox, Playstation, as well as other chips. For example, James Governor of Redmonk, in a recent blog post, noted that IBM is the world’s largest producer of chips used in GPS devices.

He said he had already been in that building several times. Moreover, because of his job, he got a bird’s-eye view of the technology headed our way, from IBM as well as all the others in the chip-making industry. For example, he said that within a year or two we would see fold-out flexible screens on cell phones.

Though the price of a desktop stayed relatively constant for several years, once the performance became “good enough,” the price started to drop. (This is an application of the teachings of Clayten Christensen; and anyone who claims to know something about open-source and its use in business, as well as the effects of commoditization on computing technology in general, needs to read his work as an essential part of one’s education.)

Thinking in terms of power of two — for I am at heart a programmer and so count in binary — computers that cost just over $2000 — or about $2048 — a few years back, can now be had for under $256, an eight-fold reduction in cost.

For example, I wrote a few months back about my experiences building a “barebone” computer using a box from ASUS. I built that computer for use as a server, so that I didn’t need a keyboard, display, or mouse, except for the initial installation.

It cost me under $200 to build this box, and I observed that it provided better performance than an e-machine my oldest daughter bought for $400 that runs Vista. Her machine came with only 512MB of memory, and provided performance so execrable that it could take ten to twenty seconds to load a simple web page. (I bought her more memory to make it a useful device, thus raising the cost to $500.)

I built another computer this past July. I used parts from Newegg, which are of higher quality than those found in standard commodity boxes. That experience is described in Building your own Linux Ubuntu computer using the ECS GeForce 6100SM-M motherboard. It cost about $250, not counting cost of display and optical (CD/DVD) drive. This is a serious machine. Not top-of-the-line, but good for day to day user by a developer who doesn’t write in C or C++ (gcc is not all that fast.)

Just a few days ago I noticed that a $200 box running a Ubuntu variant can now be had at Walmart. Yes, Walmart! Ubuntu can now be had not only from Dell, but also from a mass-market retailer, the mass-market retailer. See lxin

Just yesterday, on November 12, 2007, I learned via the Slashdot story, Wal-Mart’s $200 Linux PC Sells Out, that these boxes are in demand and have received favorable user comments.

Here is the Product Page: Everex TC2502 Green gPC w/ Via C7-D Processor. Not bad, C7 processor, 80GB drive, 512MB memory, CD/DVD drive, no display, no keyboard or mouse.

Earlier this week I ordered my XO Laptop, the new machine from the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project. It costs $200. I can’t wait to get my hands on that cute little box with the funny ears on it.

While at the K12 Open Minds Conference a month ago, I saw a demonstration ASUS Eee micro-laptop on display. I was told the cheapest version would be about $270, and that is for a laptop. I see that a higher-end model is available for around $400 at Newegg.

My gut feeling is that the cost of an acceptable desktop machine is now quite close to $200. If yet yet under it then it will be within a year.

Within ten years, and probably much sooner, we’ll see the price near a hundred bucks.

These ever-falling hardware costs will have an effect on the software indistry, especially so for large commercial vendors of operating systems.

I plan to write on that soon, say within the next hour or so.


Written by daveshields

December 12, 2007 at 4:55 am

Posted in xo-laptop

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