Designed by Consumers - Screenless Laptops

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As part of Google's tenth anniversary last year, Google asked for ideas on how to change the world. A great many suggestions were submitted, including the one below from me. Although Google has chosen not to fund this suggestion, I wanted to share it here with readers for what it's worth. Admittedly, it's counterintuitive to think that a laptop without a screen could be more useful than a laptop with a screen. But as I explain, for some people, that can indeed be the case.

Designed by Consumers--Screenless Laptops

What one sentence best describes your idea? (maximum 150 characters)

Low-income computer users can purchase laptops without screens by pooling their funds and prepurchasing the laptops.

Describe your idea in more depth. (maximum 300 words)

Low-income families could benefit from being able to buy laptops without any LCD screens. A laptop without an LCD can be a very useful portable solution when connected to CRT or fixed LCD monitors. Laptops without screens would also be a green solution, giving value to donated CRT monitors that would otherwise be heading for landfills. Portability means that this computer can be more easily maintained by volunteers, who don't always have the time to travel to people's homes.

To spur the development of laptops without screens, a nonprofit organization named Designed by Consumers could collect prepurchase payments for designated laptops, such as the Acer Aspire One. When 5000 or 10,000 such prepayments are collected, Acer would have a real incentive to consider selling a version of the Acer Aspire One without a screen for about $150.

This laptop would also have no batteries or speakers, further reducing weight and cost. A one-pound, virus-free “laptop” could allow a low-income person to get tech support or tech training at a public library, church, or community technology center and could expand the number of computers in use at such shared community spaces. Students could more easily carry such light laptops in their heavy bookbags.

The nonprofit organization named Designed by Consumers would pool funds from low-income people, and others who support them, to give low-income persons a stronger voice in technology product design decisions. The pooling of the funds would reward manufacturers who give greater thought to the needs of low-end consumers. Designed by Consumers would also accept anonymous donations from persons wanting to strengthen the public voice in design decisions. In some cases, Designed by Consumers would negotiate with manufacturers to remove (or include) features that would best benefit low-income consumers.

What problem or issue does your idea address? (maximum 150 words)

Low-income persons yearn to have a portable computing solution, yet cannot afford one. This limits their access to education, job opportunities, health information and a whole host of other benefits that portable computers give people--including the benefit of being able to get computer help from a friend or community volunteer--and pass along computer help to others. Also, great stress occurs in low-income families when students are required to share a computer when doing homework. An affordable portable computer would substantially reduce such emotional stress, and give students the ability to work in a quieter setting, such as a neighbor's apartment or house, if that is their only option for quiet study.

If your idea were to become a reality, who would benefit the most and how? (maximum 150 words)

People who currently cannot afford a portable computing solution would be able to join the ranks of those who can. This would increase the education, health, and job opportunities of people who "always wanted to buy a laptop." Millions of used CRT monitors would enter the donation stream, and be put to beneficial use with a screenless laptop. Whole new nonprofit organizations might form to distribute free CRT monitors.

What are the initial steps required to get this idea off the ground? (maximum 150 words)

Identify an existing nonprofit organization whose mission is aligned with the aims of this proposal. To my mind, the Internet Archive is the most suited organization. Set up an e-mail list to gather together people interested in this proposal. As people sign up for this list, have them identify the kind of role they might want to play in supporting the proposal. Create a Web video explaining the proposal in more detail and find private-sector and government allies. Create a bank account where people can start prepaying for a screenless laptop. Blog about the progress of this initiative on the official Google Blog, setting a goal to reach 5000 or 10,000 prepurchases by a certain date.

Describe the optimal outcome should your idea be selected and successfully implemented. How would you measure it? (maximum 150 words)

I would measure the outcome of this project by how many people use a screenless laptop to learn English, learn to type, learn computer programming, graduate from college, write a book, start their own company, etc. These milestones could be self-reported via verifiable anecdotes from people using this screenless laptop. The success of this project could also be measured by using Google Analytics to monitor the extent of Web use by this screenless laptop. Advancing skill level in would be another way to measure the success of people using this laptop. Creative output could be measured by the number of blog postings on originating from this device, the number of new docs created in Google Docs, the number of Websites created on Google Sites, and the number of searches conducted on Google using this device.

Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and technology commentator in the Washington DC. He has received numerous local and national recognitions for his work bridging the digital divide. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

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