£99 laptop could hatch the Linux generation

PC manufacturer Elonex is launching ONE, an ultra-portable laptop, at this week’s Education Show at the NEC. The machine provides a 7″ LCD screen, wireless Internet access and 1GB on-board solid state memory (there is no hard disc to save on costs). It runs Linux with what looks like OpenOffice for word processing and is being aimed at the education market. It costs just £99.

This product launch follows hot on the heels of growing interest in the ASUS Eee PC which is slightly more costly at around £200 but also runs Linux. If these low-cost products take off in the early-years education market then we could see a new generation of young adults who have been weaned on open source and Linux.

This might be considered another brick in the wall to mainstream PC manufacturers and Microsoft for two reasons.

Firstly, as my old college chum Martin Waller pointed out to me, this new generation of Linux/OpenOffice aficionados would naturally want to transfer their skills and technologies into the workplace. This worked for a now forgotten computer company called DEC (aka Digital Equipment) in the 1970s. A generation of engineering and computer science graduates entered the workplace after having used the company’s PDP/11 machine in their college years and started demanding to have access to similar, easy-to-use, mini-computers at work. This process helped speed the demise of the centralised mainframe computer.

Secondly, for Microsoft to have any hope of being incorporated in to these kinds of super-cheap, commodity products then they will have to drop the licence fee for Windows and Office. This is further reinforced in the education world by the UK’s school technology advice agency’s (BECTA) recent reservations about Microsoft’s Office 2007 software, and public exhortations for schools to make more use of free-to-use products.

The Jesuits are supposed to have said: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”. This early adoption technique may be about to take off in the world of operating systems.


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30 Responses to “£99 laptop could hatch the Linux generation”

  1. Martyn Says:

    Even if Microsoft dropped its fee, its operating systems could not fit onto these cheap computers’ flash drives while providing the functionality of Linux.

  2. Malcolm Ripley Says:

    Microsoft need to do more than drop its licence fee. They will also need to reduce the amount of resources (diskspace) it consumes. A diskless PC is also very energy efficient and I suspect the day is dawning when, like calculators, a Linux PC is entirely self charging. Just think of the area available on the lid for a solar panel.

  3. Martin Waller Says:

    I think if Microsoft can provide an operating system and tools to run on a PDA (not pdanderson) then I’m sure that they could come up with something similar to fly the flag on flash drive driven computers. Indeed there are already tools such as http://www.nliteos.com/nlite.html that allow you to create light weight installation kits for Windows XP. If third parties can do it then Microsoft can do it too. In the end it will all come down to Microsoft reducing the price.

  4. ArtInvent Says:

    ALL of personal computing is racing to the bottom cost-wise, whether any of the manufacturers or proprietary software vendors like it or not. A really good desktop can be built for US$300. A nice minimal laptop like the eee is $400, while a more full spec laptop can be had for $600. Smaller mobiles are about to explode with expensive pointers like the iPhone about to be caught up with by efforts using Android, Ubuntu Mobile, etc. Next factor is cloud computing, which will continuously drop the demands on local hardware and storage. This will be aided by the inevitable availability of pervasive wireless internet access, whether by wifi, 3G cell, WiMax, or whatever comes next.

    SOC’s – system on chip – will enable cars, TV’s, cell phones, media players, refrigerators, picture frames, alarm clocks, toasters, whatever, to contain a full computer, always connected to the net.

    To say the least, it’s pretty hard to see how a $300 operating system or even a $25 OS for each of these even begins to fit in.

  5. zachdude1094 Says:

    First off $200 (converted to U.S dollars then rounded to the nearest ten) isn’t that cheap considering that you only get 1 GB of storage, a 7 inch LCD screen. The only reason that it runs Linux and OpenOffice is because it can’t run anything else. That’s not something to celebrate. I’m not sure how much space Linux usually takes but it would seriously drain that little bit of memory, along with OpenOffice. Both Linux and OpenOffice are small programs but when your talking 1 GB overall storage, Linux and OpenOffice suddenly become much much larger. Microsoft Office is a great program. To take away from a great program, Microsoft Office, you would be seriously diminishing its value to people worldwide. In short, this is nothing to celebrate, there needs to be enough space to have Windows XP and Microsoft Office at least on there, whether or not you’re running Linux and Open Office, to make it a contender for something other than minor web browsing and small document creation.

  6. Stephen Rees Says:

    But as the XO and the EeePC are also showing, a lot of people – like me – want a basic mobile work tool that does not need its user to care about its innards. It just works, and it doesn’t cost a fortune.

    Buy a laptop from a store and you will spend hours futzing around “setting it up”. My EeePC notebook took all of two minutes. Sure I can reconfigure it but why bother? It has all I want – and some stuff I don’t that I will unload when (or rather if) space becomes an issue. The contrast with last experience with a much more expensive – and bigger – laptop that had Vista on it from the shop could not have been greater.

    No. I do not want anything more from M$ thank you very much

  7. zachdude1094 Says:

    Personal computing is getting cheaper yes but is that good? What corners are getting cut to get the cheap PCs? I mean, look at the ONE, it has no hard drive, just 1 GB of memory, does it have more than one USB port? When you buy a cheap PC (not a Mac, they’re not cheap) you’ll make up the difference later on. You will probably want more storage so you’ll probably buy a big flash drive to use as extra storage. If you only have one USB port then you’re going to buy an extender so that you can have more USB ports to plug your mouse and your flash drive in. What happens if you get tired of Linux? What if you find too many bugs to deal with? Or you need some more software but oh, you don’t have it because there’s only 1 GB and whatever else you buy. You’re going to pay the difference between this PC and a good PC no doubt about it. You can pay $600 U.S dollars for a Dell PC with good space, a good OS, room to try out other OSs, room for an actual Office suite, and in general, a better PC. You’re going to pay $200 dollars for the ONE, then you’ll buy a flash drive so you can have some room to grow, a good flash drive to keep you going for awhile will probably cost about $100 dollars. Woah, we’re at $300. Now you’ll want to buy a USB extender for more ports. This will probably cost about $20. Now we’re at $320. You might want a mouse. Another $20. See how fast the price went up just to make this PC usable for something other than basic web browsing? You can pay $600 and not have to buy anything more than a mouse if you want a basic PC from Dell. And besides, the ONE only has a 7 INCH LCD SCREEN. That’s tiny.

  8. zachdude1094 Says:

    I want to show this article to prove my point about cheap PCs.

  9. £99 laptop could hatch the Linux generation « Ramblings of a Digital Educator Says:

    […] £99 laptop could hatch the Linux generation « Tech Lunch […]

  10. Chris Lees Says:

    Zachdude1094, you have completely missed the point of these ultracheap laptops.

    They are cheap enough so you don’t mind taking them anywhere, they’re small enough so they won’t take up much space, and they are designed for word processing, web surfing, e-mail and IM. You don’t need “a big flash drive” to store Word documents and e-mails. You can fit an entire novel into 500 kilobytes of disk space; the remaining 512 megabytes of flash memory is plenty of space.

    An unpowered USB hub will cost you about $10, not $20. A big flash drive will cost you $20, not $100. Most people already have flash drives anyway, and remember that your $600 Dell doesn’t come with a mouse anyway.

    In short: This isn’t a laptop that is meant to replace your desktop (realistically, if you expect a laptop to replace your desktop, you’ll be waiting a long time for anything to happen). If you get sick of Linux, you can always run FreeBSD or Syllable on it, but the Linux distribution on these computers is more like a consumer electronics device rather than a computer. What happens if you buy an HDD/DVD recorder and you get tired of the firmware? You don’t – it’s just part of the device.

    Sure, a 7 inch screen is pretty small, but REMEMBER that this isn’t a desktop-replacement. It’s something you’ll use on the train or for tapping out notes at meetings. It’s not something you’ll be using for hours on end. Remember that people watch movies on 2-inch screens of their MP3 players.

    The detractors of these cheap ultraportables don’t realise what the machines are meant for. If you want a $600 Dell laptop that will run like a turd with Windows Vista, then go ahead and buy one. If you just want something to do a bit of work or chat on when you’re out and about, you don’t need the overhead of Vista nor the weight of hard disk and optical drives. And you especially don’t need the worry of losing or breaking an expensive piece of gear.

  11. Jonathan Says:

    This is one of the few areas of computing where the kind of functionality that MS Windows delivers is simply not required nor asked for by the public.

    Also, Microsoft will really struggle to compete with any device powered by Linux as Microsoft simply cannot afford to lower its price to zero, and manufacturers see no compelling reason to squish Windows on there as it provides no additional features and only pushes the cost up and the performance down.

  12. Peterix Says:

    Yes, you can pay $600 for a huge ‘PC’ that your child won’t want to carry around.

    But you know what? This machine wasn’t intended to be used by YOU. It’s for schoolchildren. It’s supposed to be small, light and cheap. I would be much more comfortable giving this to a child – it’s cheap and it won’t be such a problem if it breaks.

    I have to agree that the HDD could be a bit bigger – 4GB wouldn’t add that much to the price (maybe 50$ for a high speed SD card) and would allow to run a full suite of Linux desktop apps.

  13. digisus Says:

    @zachdude: “The only reason that it runs Linux and OpenOffice is because it can’t run anything else.” — Being able to run Linux and OO.org is good enough. The purpose of this device is not a gaming machine.

    “(…) there needs to be enough space to have Windows XP and Microsoft Office at least on there, whether or not you’re running Linux and Open Office, to make it a contender for something other than minor web browsing and small document creation.”

    Small document creation? I am writing a dissertation on OO.org — and I switched because Word was not up to the challenge.

    And if I had to choose a modern and secure operating system to do “minor web browsing” I would definitely -not- just choose anything-Windows, but a Linux system that does not even know what a virus scanner software is.

  14. David Wise Says:

    Hey zachdude1094,

    if you don’t want one then don’t buy one. The market will decide. I for one have an EeePC for my travel and it fits my needs. My home PC and laptop are second hand oldies running SUSE10.2 and are more than I need for web, email and wordprocessor.


  15. Jose_X Says:

    Microsoft can lower the price if they can make it up with online service contracts, for example. Meanwhile Linux is free and allows the vendors themselves to shop for quality servicing deals (or profit with it themselves) and have ultimate control over the software. How can you beat the Linux value? Certainly, for new hardware, Linux allows the vendor faster time to market. In fact, that might be what is really holding up Windows, that the vendors have to wait for Microsoft to meet the needs of their hardware.

    When MS was the only show in town, hardware vendors had to follow MS hardware guidelines. Now, they can rush ahead of anyone stuck trying to fit their hardware into MS’s model.

  16. John Cockroft Says:

    The world of desktop computing is divided into two camps these days: those who think that you cannot do anything without using Microsoft products and the rest who realize that you can.

    Shock, horror – you can use a computer and write documents very well thank you without using Windows or Microsoft Office! I am writing this using Firefox hosted on a 64 bit version of Red Hat 5 GNU/Linux (which works very well as a desktop operating system by the way – and yes I can play games (http://www.happypenguin.org/) such as Nexuiz (http://www.alientrap.org/nexuiz/), listen to MP3 files (http://amarok.kde.org/screenshots) and watch encrypted DVDs (http://xinehq.de/index.php/releases) all on Linux. In fact I rarely use Windows at all these days myself except when I need to check things for compatibility.

    I am not a rabid Microsoft hater either – I use both GNU/Linux and Windows but I do think that GNU/Linux has many advantages over Windows especially Vista and Office 2008 which are very bloated memory-wise compared to (say) Ubuntu 7.10 running Open Office and do not have significant extra functionality.

    Having a £100/sub $200 laptop is *enabling technology* meaning that many poorer child who could not otherwise afford to have a personal computer can now afford to. Using GNU/Linux and OpenOffice on the ONE instead of Windows/Microsoft Office will not scar children for life but it might make make them realize that they have a choice. No you won’t be able to play the latest 3D games on the ONE but that is not what it is for although I bet that some games like Frozen Bubble (http://www.frozen-bubble.org/) would be OK.

    The most wonderful thing about open source software is the freedom. The software is free to use and nobody can take that right away from you. You do not have to buy extra licences if you buy another computer nor will the software time out or need to be authenticated online from time-to-time. You are also not as restricted in terms of hardware as with Microsoft software. If you want to have a desktop computer based on a PowerPC processor or an ARM processor then you are not restricted to the WinTel architecture (which is pretty long-in-the-tooth and very power hungry compared to other alternatives if you ask me).

    Microsoft are not going to just vanish overnight (and indeed I would not want them to) but I think we are seeing the beginning of the end of Microsoft’s monopoly over personal computing.

  17. pdanderson Says:

    Well, this Linux machine seems to have stirred up an interesting debate! Many thanks for all the feedback and comments.

    I think that John Cockroft’s comment about giving access to poorer children is particularly worth emphasising.

  18. Joe Six Says:

    -Personal computing is getting cheaper yes but is that good?


    -What corners are getting cut to get the cheap PCs?

    The single largest cost, the Microsoft ‘tax’, is being cut completely out. And yes, that’s a good thing.

    -I’m not sure how much space Linux usually takes

    It fits on cell phones, embedded industrial computer boards, other smaller embedded devices, and can run real-time if necessary.

    -I mean, look at the ONE, it has no hard drive,

    That’s one of the reasons why Apple and other manufacturers are moving to flash. And with the mobility and associated drops and knocks, that’s a good thing.

    – just 1 GB of memory,

    Not a problem with networking, and if a problem, easily solved with an additional USB drive.

    -does it have more than one USB port?
    – a good flash drive to keep you going for awhile will probably cost about $100 dollars. Woah, we’re at $300
    -Now you’ll want to buy a USB extender for more ports. This will probably cost about $20. Now we’re at $320.

    – You might want a mouse. Another $20. See how fast the price went up just to make this PC usable for something other than basic web browsing? You can pay $600 and not have to buy anything more than a mouse if you want a basic PC from Dell.

    Ah, with your inflated math, it’s still a $280 difference since the Dell doesn’t come with a mouse either. Taking a quick look at my USB extender from Radio Shack, it’s a Gigaware 1 into 4 port extender, that cost $4.99 on sale. I bought three, so I have two spares, or in this case, 11 USB ports for the One, if needed. So let’s fix your inflated math a bit. Instead of $320, it’s $305. That’s just about 50% less cost than your Dell. At $305, I can pick up TWO Ones, each of which, I think, will be far more reliable and resilient in my pocket, than the Dell carefully wrapped, tied, and strapped away in your backpack carrying case, unused until you find a desktop big enough to unpack it, set it up, plug it in (so the battery lasts longer than months instead of years), power it up, wait for it to boot up, then start using it.

    -And besides, the ONE only has a 7 INCH LCD SCREEN. That’s tiny.

    As for screen size, it isn’t a function of cost, but of portability: http://tinyurl.com/2f2seq and one of my favorites: http://tinyurl.com/2o9gdn both of which cost $2,000+ when first released.

  19. Babel TV – a set-top box or a Linux PC? « Tech Lunch Says:

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  20. Martin Waller Says:

    Asus have done the decent thing… http://eeepc.asus.com/global/news03052008.htm but I’ve not seen a price yet!

  21. RYAN Says:

    When are the new 99 pound laptops coming out because I really want one?

  22. pdanderson Says:

    The Elonex ONE is available now as far as I can tell. The company’s website has an online shop. The EEE PC has been available for a few months.

  23. Martin Waller Says:

    The new Eee pc 900 is out and about. Larger display, more disk space and available on pre-order!


    I can feel my credit card flexing as I write this…

  24. Learning Windows – is this really a life-skill? « Tech Lunch Says:

    […] Windows – is this really a life-skill? A few weeks ago I mentioned the imminent release of the £99 ONE laptop which runs a version of the open source GNU/Linux […]

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