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Can a network build a potentially huge new product?

NICHOLAS NEGROPONTE KNEW HE WOULD NEED A LOT OF HELP. WHEN THE former director of the MIT media lab announced in 2005 the idea of making $100 laptops for millions of children in the poorest nations, his support group consisted of a couple of professors in cardigans. The project was ambitious: This machine was not a knockoff of a Dell or an Apple but a complete rethink, from the motherboard to the escape key.

His solution was to open every aspect of the product's development and design to gear-heads around the world who wanted to pitch in. Negroponte eventually negotiated formal agreements with designers and suppliers. But at the start he envisioned a wiki undertaking and set up a sprawling Web site (wiki.laptop.org) with dozens of pages dedicated to the laptop's every detail--its goals and technical specs, downloads of the latest software and problems with the latest prototypes. Wild ideas, practical applications, skin-peeling criticism--it's all part of the process. A loosely connected alliance of staffers, suppliers and volunteers work out the kinks. "There would be no way to launch and ramp in any way other than open and viral" Negroponte says in an e-mail exchange from Taiwan, where he is dealing with manufacturing. "A command-and-control model, the way one runs an army, is not well suited for new ideas."

Negroponte is bound to get much of the credit or blame for the success or failure of this laptop. But, with 1,423 people registered on the wiki, there's really no single author. The $100 laptop, called XO, is the result of broad collaboration, sometimes forced, sometimes serendipitous. The same could be said for many familiar designs, products and processes commonly attributed to a single brilliant mind. The design of an automobile assembly line came from a Henry Ford associate who had visited a Chicago slaughterhouse (and might have been influenced by an assembly line created by Ransom E. Olds a few years earlier). The iconic Jaguar E-Type of 1963 (one of which now sits in the Museum of Modern Art in New York) was largely the result of a designer who applied mathematics he'd learned while creating aerodynamic World War II fighter planes, which themselves came from many different sources.

Design often comes about through a network of ideas--some borrowed, some stolen--that cross-pollinate. That's more easily discerned in, say, medieval cathedrals than in art deco architecture like the Chrysler Building. It took 500 years to cobble together St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, beginning in 1063. Traders and crusaders going East and West brought columns, friezes, statues and mosaics from far-flung places that were incorporated into the church.

Now, let's compress the cathedral building to a year or two. XO had difficult requirements: It had to sip power, be readable in bright sunlight, be extremely tough and sport a much more powerful antenna in order to pick up and emit signals in isolated areas. In addition, the laptop had to be adapted to one of eight languages and four alphabets. Its overall appearance had to be striking enough that kids would want one. And it had to be cheap.

One laptopmaker refused early on to get involved because, it claimed, success would require "ten or twenty" miracles, according to Mary Lou Jepsen, a former Intel executive now serving as the project's chief technical officer. But the miraculous has mostly occurred--thanks to contributions from Hawaii and Haifa, China, California and Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Taiwan--even from Nepal. "It's breaking all the rules of designing something," says Jepsen. "And it's working better and faster than anything I've ever worked on."

Negroponte's nonprofit group, One Laptop Per Child, has raised $31 million from donors such as Google, News Corp., Red Hat, Nortel and AMD. The XO is being built by Quanta, the giant Taiwanese laptopmaker, with AMD and Marvell chips and Red Hat--Linux-based open-source--software. The supplier companies plan to make a small profit on the machines. One Laptop will scrounge for grants and other funding to help foreign governments buy and distribute the machines to children. Thousands of late-stage prototypes have been built in preparation for full production starting late this summer. Nine countries have signed on to deliver several million computers.

Many technical challenges have been addressed through unlikely collaboration. Example: access to the Internet in nations without much dial-up or DSL or cable or Wi-Fi. One of the hardware designers, lamenting that the antennas of traditional laptops were buried in the display screen, asked if he could liberate them to increase range. But industrial designers worried that external antennas would be too fragile. At about the same time, Quanta suggested a locking mechanism for the laptop that designers thought was not child-friendly or durable enough. After several iterations, the antennas now stick up like rabbit ears, but they also serve as latches to hold the laptop dosed. And they fold down to cover the USB ports and microphone jacks, acting as dust covers. As of the last test, the antennas could survive a 5-foot drop, open. Best, they pick up signals from a half-mile away and then act as routers to bounce signals along, even when the computer is off. The idea is that a single connection in a school could reach an entire community by bouncing from one laptop to the next.

Early in the project the laptop included a hand-crank generator to power the battery. But designers soon found that the size, weight, cost and torque needed to power the machine would be too great. Now the battery is easily removable and can be charged in all sorts of ways, like dipping it into a charger powered by a car battery or solar panel. A Bay Area firm called Potenco came up with a handheld accessory that charges the battery with a pull cord like the one that starts a lawn mower.

The screen was a problem because a typical one costs $120 and uses lots of power. So Jepsen changed the pixel layout, eliminated some costly color filters and changed the electronics so the display could be read even if the computer processor were dormant. Also, she designed the display so that it could be seen in black-and-white or color. It uses one-seventh the power of a traditional screen and costs only $40.

Smaller parts of the computer have come from all over--from so many sources Jepsen & Co. doesn't bother keeping track of who provided what. An engineer in Chile wrote a piece of code that governs a keyboard light. A group in Argentina came up with the calculator application. The user interface is being designed in Milan. Key parts of the operating system are being developed in Brazil. Negroponte says an unknown wiki contributor suggested that the caps lock key be eliminated to save space. And so it was.

Of course, not everyone who pitches in is helpful. To create a custom wireless system, the group had to agree to use proprietary, non-open-source software. That displeased a few, but very vocal, folks in the open-source community. They felt so betrayed by the decision, says Walter Bender, a One Laptop founder, that they vilified the entire project and convinced other software designers not to collaborate with it. But it's been nothing like the horrendous process of designing the structure now being called the Freedom Tower, the edifice that will stand on the site of New York City's former World Trade Center. Tortured by demands from developers, police departments, governments and survivors, the building scarcely resembles the original design by Daniel Libeskind. The current plans have been skewered by critics as the "Fear Tower."

The laptop has taken its share of hits. Bender, who is in charge of software, says that operating in such an open manner has subjected his project to withering criticism because so many people were invited to see early versions nowhere near completion. "We put ideas and machines out in the world long before a company would--we are exposing all of our warts," he says. The computer has a thousand bugs, all detailed for anyone to see online. "There's a risk in showing something that isn't finished," Bender says. "But there's a greater risk in waiting." He expects there to be 500 million laptops in the hands of poor children five years from now--both the XO and other low-cost models under development.

A few miracles haven't yet occurred. They haven't hit the $100 target yet; the machines still cost roughly $150 to produce. And One Laptop Per Child hasn't figured out yet how to get the laptops to all those kids. "We need to think about deployment as creatively as we thought about the hardware and the software," says Jepsen. Ideas are welcome.

PHOTO (COLOR): Worldwide wiki: People from around the globe helped design and criticize what became the XO--everything from the screen and keyboard to the operating system and power source.

PHOTO (COLOR): Connecting kids: Developers want to get the $100 laptop into the hands of Third World children.

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