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

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...

...that can only be answered with experience.

The issue of how children will actually interact with the device is a much more complex issue that probably demands multiple in-depth trials in different locations and with different age groups. Rather than the traditional concept of a laptop as an information input and storage device, OLPC has decided to equip its machine with just 500MB of flash storage. It envisions the machines being used for peer-to-peer learning — sharing information — but there is a big behavioural and cultural issue to consider in this model, as well as the efficiency and speed of the wireless technology used to connect the machines.

Another overlooked dimension to the OLPC project is the interest shown by educators in the US and Europe. The last major outing for Negroponte and his prototype wasn't to a village in Africa but a educational technology conference in San Diego. Some educational experts in the US are seeing a potential for the machine to undercut the technological monoculture they see defining the use of technology in schools.

According to the San Diego Tribune, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a potential presidential candidate at the next election, has already said he wants to buy a machine for every child in his state. The OLPC Web site contains a reference to plans for a commercial version of the laptop. Whether the design ever appears, and whether it differs from the developing-world model, is not clear. But, for the cynical, at least, the idea of a cheap laptop in the hands of every child in the US could go a long way toward explaining News Corp's backing of the project. A cheap computer pre-loaded with a peer-to-peer, off-line-capable version of MySpace?

Whatever happens with the OLPC project, and whether you agree with it or not, the tech world is certainly a more interesting place for its existence. It's not alone. Microsoft, undeterred by its rejection as a contributor to OLPC, has been working on a mobile phone design which could offer similar cheap computing resources to poor and developing markets. The FonePlus device is still as the concept stage, but if Microsoft has been prepared to subsidise the XBox market to the tune of billions of dollars, it may be prepared to pay out a little more.

The money being ploughed into OLPC could arguably be put to better use: established programmes for refurbishing old PC technology, such as the UK's Computer Aid, would no doubt love a chunk of the money; they also have the infrastructure, and existing relationships with NGOs in the developing world, which could help ensure the cash wouldn't go to waste.

But the OLPC project has at least generated interest in closing the digital divide, which is no bad thing. And if more US governors and European governments follow Romney's example, we could be in for a very interesting time closer to home.

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