Sunday, December 03, 2006

For $150, third-world laptop stirs a big debate

Mary Lou Jepsen, the chief technologist for the project, likes to refer to the insight that transformed the machine from utopian dream to working prototype as "a really wacky idea."

Jepsen, a former Intel chip designer, found a way to modify conventional laptop displays, cutting the screen's manufacturing cost to $40 while reducing its power consumption by more than 80 percent. As a bonus, the display is clearly visible in sunlight.

That advance and others have allowed the nonprofit project, One Laptop Per Child, to win over many skeptics over the last two and a half years. Five countries--Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria and Thailand--have made tentative commitments to put the computers into the hands of millions of students, with production in Taiwan expected to begin by mid-2007.

The laptop does not come with a Microsoft Windows operating system or even a hard drive, and the screen is small. And the cost is now closer to $150 than $100. But the price tag, even compared with low-end $500 laptops now widely available, transforms the economic equation for developing countries.

That has not prevented the effort, conceived by Nicholas Negroponte, a prominent computer researcher, from becoming the focal point of a debate over the value of computers to both learning and economic development.

The detractors include two computer industry giants, Intel and Microsoft, pushing alternative approaches. Intel has developed a $400 laptop aimed at schools as well as an education program that focuses on teachers instead of students. And Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and a leading philanthropist for the third world, has questioned whether the concept is "just taking what we do in the rich world" and assuming that that is something good for the developing world, too.

Negroponte, the founding director of the MIT Media Laboratory, said he was amused by the attention his little machine was getting. It is not the first time he has been challenged for proclaiming technology's promise.

Credits : Cnet.Com


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