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Thin Clients in Africa and the $100 laptop

For many of us, just getting through the day's load of e-mail is our highest and best use of the Internet. But interesting social changes may be on the horizon thanks to a consortium led by Nick Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. The $100 laptop is not yet in production, but it is designed to be rugged because it uses Flash memory like an IPOD Nano, not a conventional hard drive. It also has a screen bright enough to view in the searing daylight in Africa or India, and can be hand-cranked for power. It is designed to be used as a portable book, even a primer to learn how to read, using software that displays the book in the local language.

Google is part of the consortium to build and distribute these laptops. The thin client refers to the system design that allows the heavy processing to be done by the network, not on the laptop. The laptop is a thin client of the network, and the programs that do the processing reside on the network. The laptop is a terminal that can display a book, send e-mail and do homework, but it doesn't have to own a copy of the Photoshop program in order to be able to access its functionality. The laptop remotely accesses the program and does the work online, with the processing done on a server on the network, not on the laptop. The laptop just gets the results.

This hasn't happened yet, it is on the horizon. The photo-retouching program used is more likely to be Google's free Picasa product than the tightly-licensed Photoshop. But you get the idea.

If this sounds like Google's plan for getting in on the ground floor for being the source of processing for places like China, it could sound like a threat to Microsoft. At a recent press conference, in a reference to how Microsoft ruined Netscape by offering a free browser when Netscape was trying to sell Navigator for $50, Bill Gates was asked if Microsoft planned to do the same thing to Google as it did to Netscape. Gates smirked, looked away, then replied, "No, we'll do something different."

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