Nicholas Negroponte wants to distribute a supercheap laptop with a hand crank, bright colors and Linux OS all over the developing world. He thinks he can sell them to governments for $100. Bill Gates is saying, 'Great, but how are those laptops going to get online in the developing world?' Landlines are famously unavailable and expensive and telecom is in the hands of monopolies or government agencies that will never turn give up on pay-per-minute pricing. Gates says that the telecom revolution in Africa and other places has been in cellphones, thanks in large part to Grameen, and all of the microfinance and microbusiness opportunities they've created. Negroponte's response sounds a lot like hand-waving and wishful thinking. As the NYT describes his ideas:
Negroponte said networking costs would not be an obstacle because the laptops would be made to connect automatically in a so-called mesh network, making it possible for up to 1,000 computers to wirelessly share just one or two land-based Internet connections.
The Media Lab researchers are also planning to approach an upcoming meeting of the international consortium overseeing GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) for cell phones about setting up a data standard that would allow low-cost and educational use of wireless network capacity.
"We call the concept 'standby bits,'" Negroponte said, explaining that the concept is similar to the way standby passengers on airlines can travel when there are empty seats. The laptops would send and receive Internet data only when higher-paying commercial data was not being transmitted.
Mesh network sounds great. But it will not be built just because it's a great idea, or even because funding materializes for it. There are just too many layers of inaction and corruption and too few vested interests in creating such networks.
So this is where the true power of the idea comes in. Don't worry about the network. When the laptops are out there, when people actually have them - and they can do valuable things with them offline - then the demand - grassroots, democratic demand - will build louder and louder for real Internet solutions.
Making something fit into the currently available resources is not the long-term answer. Because the currently available resources suck. The revolution that is needed is to upend all of the power-centered restraints on the Internet.
And what does all of this have to do with the Mac? Just this. The original Mac was both insanely great and not nearly good enough. Jobs knew when it was good enough to be great. And like everything in computing (well, a lot of things), it got iteratively better. It contained a network - a crappy network, but a network, and eventually the networking came along, once there was something to connect. Once people had an amazing toy, they did desktop publishing, they did multimedia, we already know the story.
So give people in Africa and Latin Amerian and Asia a $100 toy. They will do amazing things. And they will demand a network - not an African network but the network. And that will be a democratic movement that will force competitive internet services.
Or not. It will actually take a lot more than a computer to solve the world's woes. But getting something insanely great out there right now, will start one ball rolling.