What’s a hundred-dollar bill worth?

In the United States, nowadays, a hundred bucks can get you a fully working laptop. (Well, two hundred, really – more on that in a sec). Nicholas Negroponte’s OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project has created a US$100 laptop for release and distribution to schools in developing nations.

Well, it used to be exclusive to schools in developing countries, but that’s recently changed. If you want one, you’ll have to buy two of them: the other goes to a needy kid somewhere. Nice.

Don’t know when we’ll have OLPC laptops available here, but we have something else for the same amount – a fully working and workable desktop PC, hardware and software, for US$200, or roughly P10,000.

Late this afternoon I attended a press conference set up by the folk behind the Philippines’ Computer for All Initiative (PC4All) at the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT) beside the University of the Philippines. It was to introduce and demonstrate a 10K PC – complete, with a CPU, storage, monitor, keyboard and mouse… and software. They’re internet- and network-ready, and some of the CPUs are about the size of an internal CD-ROM drive. They run on a couple of varieties of Linux, and come complete with the OS, the Open Office application suite, and Firefox. Basically everything you could want without breaking the bank.

The CICT’s previous initiative was the PC Ng Bayan project started two years ago, and they sourced and put together a workable deal with the project’s successor, PC4All. They showed us 4 different setups with different kinds of CPUs that were fully working and serviceable. I could imagine computer labs all over the country outfitted with these inexpensive desktops so that kids could cut their teeth on the real thing. Meant for distibution in schools, the PC4All project intends to have at least 10,000 of these inexpensive PCs in computer labs all over the country by the end of the year.

Fellow PWiTter Art Ilano and I tinkered with the simple machines and marveled at how …adequate they were. Certainly enough to keep an average geek happy. Project Consultant Joel Baclit generously answered every question we could come up with. I found myself clicking and running word processors, photo editors, surfing with Firefox and forgetting that I was doing it all on something that was just the cost of a low-end iPod. These PCs had everything you needed to be plugged into the system. Any kid would have more than enough to do – and to learn, with one of these PCs. Once they get past the simple stuff, they could move on to command-line wizardry, because there are no barriers to doing that – the software is free and open source. One of the non-negotiables made with this deal is ample and ready support. If we seeded the country with these inexpensive things, we could get somewhere. Truly.

Children who now have twenty minutes of hands-on computer time per week can now have more time to learn. Instead of poring over textbooks, they can try the stuff out for themselves. Virtually everything more privileged kids use today have open source equivalents, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the sky is the limit with these PCs.

As an IT journalist I was used to opulent and grandiose presscons in hotel ballrooms with a reception table staffed by beautiful people, sumptious lunch buffets, arm-breaking press kits with brochures, CDs and video, celebrity-studded multimedia presentations and at the end, stupendous swag and mouth-watering raffles, all to promote a brand new, say, USB thumbdrive. Or maybe even a $100 laptop.

At the PC4All event I was greeted by simple folk in a small room just big enough for about 50 people, with plastic lawn chairs, makeshift table namecards and registration clipboards. On a long table they had beaten-up, worse-for-wear monitors and keyboards that looked like they’ve seen better days, and at the back of the room there was merienda: paper plates with two slices of club sandwiches each, cans of warm softdrink and a stack of paper napkins. By the end of the presscom I would go home with their press kit: two photocopied sheets of paper stapled together.

It was one of the best press conferences I’ve been to in a long time.