A novel plan to develop a $100 laptop computer for distribution to millions of schoolchildren in developing countries has caught the interest of governments and the attention of computer-industry heavyweights.

First announced in January by Nicholas Negroponte, the founding chairman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, the initiative appears to be gaining steam. Mr. Negroponte is scheduled to demonstrate a working prototype of the device with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Wednesday at a U.N. technology conference in Tunisia.

Mr. Negroponte and other backers say they have held discussions with at least two dozen countries about purchasing the laptops and that Brazil and Thailand have expressed the most interest so far. In addition, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney recently proposed spending $54 million to buy one of the laptops for every student in middle school and high school in his state.

Although no contracts with governments have been signed, Mr. Negroponte says current plans call for producing five to ten million units beginning in late 2006 or early 2007, with tens of millions more a year later. Five companies — Google Inc., Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Red Hat Inc., News Corp. and Brightstar Corp. — have each provided $2 million to fund a nonprofit organization called One Laptop Per Child that was set up to oversee the project. Mr. Negroponte says five companies are bidding to make the laptop, although he declined to name them.

Mr. Negroponte remains eager to place the laptop in the hands of 100 to 150 million students. He says he has learned in educational projects in Cambodia and other developing countries that computers spur children to learn and explore outside the boundaries of a classroom, and share their discoveries with their families. “I do not think of them only in classrooms, but part of an integrated and seamless experience for kids and their families,” he says.

Still, the project would require governments in the developing world to come up with $15 billion to supply 150 million laptops, and it isn’t yet clear how many countries can afford even a $100 machine. Technical hurdles also remain.

The device that will be shown in Tunisia is still an early version; Mr. Negroponte says the screen alone will require another three months of development. The designers also have yet to bring the overall price down to $100, although they say they are getting close. “Even if the first ones are $118.50, as long as subsequent machines are less and less expensive, that is what counts,” Mr. Negroponte says.

Major computer industry players appear to be taking the venture seriously, including companies like Microsoft Corp. that aren’t yet participating. Microsoft could be confronting a laptop that could become a standard in the developing world — one that, for now, would come without its dominant Windows software.

By Steve Stecklow

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