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

...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.

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

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.