Technology Review presents some arguments on both sides of the $100 laptop v. cellphones debate. On the side of Microsoft's vague ideas for cellphones:
Shiv Bakhshi, with research firm IDC, thinks that developing nations don't have the same "cultural constructs" for laptops as they do for cell phones and televisions, and, as a result, their citizens may be less inclined to interact with a laptop.
More pressingly, the laptop project doesn't have a customer support network. If a laptop breaks down, how will the owner fix it? With cell phones, it's likely that network providers and possibly handset manufacturers will have support programs in place.
Another argument in favor of cell phones is simply their growing presence. Cell phone sales will reach one billion units by 2009, according to the Gartner Group -- with much of the growth coming from developing nations. What's more, cell phone manufacturers have lowered the cost of their products significantly: in the last 18 months from around $35 per phone to $20, according to European manufacturer Infineon.
On the side of the laptop:
"Cell phones make a lot of sense from a certain standpoint," says John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation advocacy group. "They're great for calling and for a certain kind of e-mail. But if you want to experience cyberspace in any meaningful way you can't do it with a cell phone."
Seymour Papert, professor emeritus at MIT and a $100 laptop team member who's developing educational initiatives for the machine, balks at the idea of using cell phones. "If we think of technology as purely access to information, and education as access to information, you might start making a case for the cell phone," he says. "But education is not just access to information. It's doing things, making things. You can't program on a cell phone."
Furthermore, says Papert, once children become familiar with the laptop, there's so much they can do -- even if a functioning network isn't in place and the device isn't hooked up to the Internet. "A non-connected computer is more valuable than a connected cell phone," he says.
Papert seems wrong to us. It's all about the network.
Raul Zambrano, a policy advisor with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) -- an organization that announced its partnership with the $100 laptop program at Davos -- says that focusing on the device itself is missing the mark. "What's important is how much it costs to connect to the network," he says. In Africa, cell phone users don't have to pay for incoming calls. Certainly, with a cell phone-based outreach program, Zambrano argues, users would have to pay to connect to the Internet. "That's a big challenge."