MIT has unveiled its $100 hand-cranked laptop computer to the United Nations technology summit in Tunisia and said that it hopes to make millions of the devices to give to the poorest people in the world.

The lime-green machines, which are about the size of a text book, will offer wireless connectivity via a mesh network of their own creation allowing peer-to-peer communication and operate in areas without a reliable electricity supply.

"The $100 laptop is inspiring in many respects", said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "It is an impressive technical achievement, able to do almost everything that larger, more expensive computers can do. It holds the promise of major advances in economic and social development. But perhaps most important is the true meaning of 'one laptop per child'. This is not just a matter of giving a laptop to each child, as if bestowing on them some magical charm. The magic lies within - within each child, within each scientist-, scholar-, or just plain citizen-in-the-making. This initiative is meant to bring it forth into the light of day".

The goal is to provide the machines free of charge to children in poor countries who cannot afford computers of their own, said MIT Media Lab chairman Nicholas Negroponte.

Governments or charitable donors will pay for the machines but children will own them, he said.

"Ownership of the laptops is absolutely critical", he said. "Have you ever washed a rented car?"

Brazil, Thailand, Egypt and Nigeria are candidates to receive the first wave of laptops starting in February or March, and each will buy at least 1 million units, he said.

The computers operate at 500 MHz, about half the processor speed of commercial laptops, and will run on Linux rather than Microsoft's or Apple's Operating systems as previously hoped by the two companies.

The computer uses a screen from a portable DVD player, which can be switched from colour to black and white to make it easily viewable in bright sunlight, said Mary Lou Jepsen, the project's chief technical officer.

MIT plans to have units ready for shipment by the end of 2006 or early 2007. Manufacturing will begin when 5 to 10 million machines have been ordered and paid for in advance.