The war over $100 dollar laptops

100dollarlaptop_nuncscio.jpg Nicholas Negroponte, MIT professor and founder of the One Laptop Per Child program, is accusing Intel of forcing his initiative to provide cheap computers to school children in the developing world off the rails.

Negroponte says Intel is selling its own cut-rate laptop, the Classmate, below cost to drive OLPC out of their target markets. Intel has also been engaging in aggressive marketing tactics aimed at damaging the OLPC laptop, claims Negroponte.

Not surprisingly, Intel denies these charges. I find it interesting that the OLPC laptop uses a chip produced by Intel's chief rival, AMD. This could easily be written off as another mildly entertaining chapter in the ongoing AMD/Intel war of words were it not for the millions of children who could benefit from a little co-operation bewteen the chip makers.

Both the Classmate and the OLPC laptop are touted as solutions to the 'Digital Divide', or the serious disparity in access to information communication technologies (ICTs) in the developed and developing worlds. This disparity is a serious barrier to economic and social development, and to equitable participation in the global community. By providing low-cost, rugged laptops to children in the Third World, the OLPC and Classmate laptops could help close this gap.

Negorponte's machine is pretty darn innovative. It is so energy efficient, it can be powered by a hand-crank. It uses 'mesh' networking, which allows many users to access the Internet through one connection simultaneously. Its simple operating system and software is built around the Linux platform, so it is rock-solid stable. Best of all, the system retails for $176, and this price is expected to drop as the machine rolls out. Currently, governments are able to purchase the computer in 250,000 unit lots. At least in concept, the OLPC laptop could do much to close the digital divide. This explains why it was so enthusiastically received at the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society.

I have some issues with the $100 laptop concept. It is ultimately a technologically deterministic solution to the digital divide- it assumes that once people have the tools, they will become fully-engage cyber citizens and entrepreneurs. Substantial scholarship has suggested this idea misses several critical elements of the digital divide. Namely, exclusively technological solutions do not properly understand the need for training, contextualized and community-specific strategies for facilitating effective use of technology, and access to relevant content. This last point is particularly important. Sure, $100 laptops give you access, but access to what? Perez Hilton is likely to be of little value to a farmer in Niger. You can read a paper I wrote on this topic here: mc403-beyond-technology.pdf.

Nevertheless, low-cost laptops are an important tool in closing the digital divide. It would be unfortunate if a squabble over pricing and markets sidelined a valuable program. I think I have to side with Negroponte on this one. It's hard to favour multi-national corporation over a not-for-profit making laptops for children. Ideally, AMD, Intel and OLPC could put their differences aside for the greater good. Ideally, I'd also like a rocketpack.

Here's hoping the OLPC project finds a way to continue, and Intel finds a way to play nice.