"Can we use those $100 laptops?"

As I was pitching my largely Mac-based tech refresh proposal tonight to the financial powers that be in our town, one member of the finance committee asked, "Have you heard of the laptops going to third world countries? Can we use those $100 laptops?

As I was pitching my largely Mac-based tech refresh proposal tonight to the financial powers that be in our town, one member of the finance committee asked, "Have you heard of the laptops going to third world countries? Can we use those $100 laptops?" Oh boy.

The question itself wasn't a bad one. Most people who only hear the occasional Negroponte sound bite aren't aware that these computers aren't just little green Dells. This isn't to say that they (or their competitors) couldn't satisfy a lot of our student computing needs at the K-8 level. However, the average Joe doesn't know that they run Linux, or, in the case of the Classmate, possibly run Windows XP, bringing a host of security compromises to the table. In our case, one of the reasons we chose the Mac platform was because educational software that we had already purchased and on which we had already trained teachers was designed to run on Mac clients and servers, further ruling out either Windows or Linux machines.

Operating systems aside, though, my real concern is that decision-makers, while often good leaders, are rarely well-versed in technology. Having reviewed the Classmates and followed the XO closely, I happened to be in a position to provide a pretty good answer to her question, discussing distribution models, compromises and advantages of the educational UMPC platforms, and trends in the industry that may open up some very interesting possibilities for 1:1 computing in the coming years. Ultimately, I was able to speak to the advantages of a more traditional computing model right now, and in this given situation.

Not everyone blogs for ZDNet, though, and gets to review slick new technologies or spends significant chunks of time too many nights a week thinking about how the OLPC might be used effectively in mature markets.

The take home message, of course, is to make sure that teachers, parents, students, and community members aren't swept up by the hype of OLPC America (or Classmate USA, or whatever). Rather, while I firmly believe that this emerging market niche will have a huge potential impact (and value) for developed countries, all parties need to fully understand (as well as see, touch, and try) the true nature and purpose of these devices.