Are the $100 laptop's good intentions good enough?

Summary:India may have rejected the One Laptop per Child project, but that may not matter if it's picked up by the Americans

For a seemingly benign project, there's a surprising degree of controversy surrounding MIT guru Nicholas Negroponte's scheme to create a cheap, robust laptop for the developing world.

We've had our doubts about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) scheme from its early inception. Creating bespoke, untested technology for the developing world is misguided, some argue, while others see the "laptop" as nothing more than a large PDA with limited functionality.

Criticism of the project — which aims to create a device for around $100 (£54) — has grown this week following the Indian government's very public decision not to purchase any of the machines. In fact, India not only said "No thanks", education secretary Sudeep Banerjee said the project was "pedagogically suspect" and warned that giving the country's schoolchildren a laptop each could harm their creative thinking and analytical abilities.

Just how constructive or technologically correct India's opposition to OLPC is is not clear. As we pointed out in an earlier Leader on this issue, the country doesn't exactly have a great relationship with OLPC boss Negroponte or his fellow academics at MIT. The fact that India isn't short on its own IT talent may also be a factor — in recent years there's been a flow of technical expertise from India to the US, not the other way around.

But while OLPC may have smarted from India's rejection, four other countries green lighting a million units shortly after will have done much to salve the pain. Early this week it emerged that Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina and Thailand have each expressed an interest in buying a million of the laptops apiece. Good news for the OLPC project, as the group has said that it will delay manufacturing the device until it has orders for at least 5 million units. If those interests solidify — and the project managers have said that no orders will be accepted until the design is finished, which it isn't — then a project written off by some as an academic flight of fancy could be extremely close to being realised.

But manufacturing the device, and actually creating the kind of technically aided revolution in education put forward by Negroponte and the rest of the OLPC backers, are two very different things. For a start, there haven't been any significant trials of the ideas inherent in the device, as far as we know — a step that would seem logical, given the amount of innovation both in the technology and in its application. Trials may be coming, but surely it would have been prudent on the part of the four governments who announced their commitments this week to demand to see the results of field trials first. Whether the technology does the job, and whether the job is worth doing, are questions...

Topics: Tech Industry


"If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism." Hunter S. Thompson Andrew Donoghue is a freelance technology and business journ... Full Bio

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