The paternalism of charity
Jodi Hilton for The New York Times
Walter Bender, left, and Nicholas Negroponte
working with an early model of the $150 laptop
computer in Cambridge, Mass.
For $150, Third-World Laptop Stirs a Big Debate
By JOHN MARKOFF
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When computer industry executives heard about a plan to build a $100 laptop for the developing world’s children, they generally ridiculed the idea. How could you build such a computer, they asked, when screens alone cost about $100?
Mary Lou Jepsen, the chief technologist for the project, likes to refer to the insight that transformed the machine from utopian dream to working prototype as “a really wacky idea.”
Ms. Jepsen, a former Intel chip designer, found a way to modify conventional laptop displays, cutting the screen’s manufacturing cost to $40 while reducing its power consumption by more than 80 percent. As a bonus, the display is clearly visible in sunlight.
Each machine will come with a simple mechanism for recharging itself when a standard power outlet is not available. The designers experimented with a crank, but eventually discarded that idea because it seemed too fragile. Now they have settled on several alternatives, including a foot pedal as well as a hand-pulled device that works like a salad spinner.
Ms. Jepsen’s display, which removes most of the color filters but can operate in either color or monochrome modes, has made it possible to build a computer that consumes just 2 watts of power, compared with the 25 to 45 watts consumed by a conventional laptop. The ultra-low-power operation is possible because of the lack of a hard drive (the laptop uses solid-state memory, which has no moving parts and has fallen sharply in cost) and because the Advanced Micro Devices microprocessor shuts down whenever the computer is not processing information.
The designers have also gambled in designing the laptop’s software, which is based on the freely available Linux operating system, a rival to Microsoft’s Windows. Dispensing with a traditional desktop display, the software substitutes an iconic interface intended to give students a simpler view of their programs and documents and a maplike view of other connected users nearby.
A video-camera lens sits just to the right of the display, for use in videoconferencing and taking digital still photos of reasonable quality. The computer comes with a stripped-down Web browser, a simple word processor and a number of learning programs. For e-mail, the designers intend to use Google’s Web-based Gmail service.
Only one program at a time can be viewed on the laptop because of its small 7.5-inch display.
Mr. Negroponte has been a globetrotting salesman for the project, winning Libya’s participation when he was summoned by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to a meeting in a desert tent on a sweltering August night. But there have also been setbacks. The Indian Education Ministry rejected a proposal to order a million computers, noting that the money could be better spent on primary and secondary education.
Mr. Negroponte said he had been re-energized by the recent arrival of the first 1,000 working prototypes. The prototypes, he said, will give him new ammunition to convince government leaders that his tiny machines can be a positive force for social development. [On a visit to Brazil on Nov. 24, Mr. Negroponte presented one of the prototypes to President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.]
He said a program would be created to enable those in the developed world to underwrite a laptop for a child in a designated country and to correspond with the recipient by e-mail as a sort of “glorified pen-pal program.” But however attractive the idea of a $100 or $150 laptop, he said there were no plans to make it generally available to consumers.
“They should buy Dell’s $499 laptop for now,” he said. “Ours is really designed for developing nations — dusty, dirty, no or unreliable power and so on.”
Did anyone ask people in the third world what kind of machine they wanted? No.
Did anyone ask what kind of software they had on hand?
They just want to shower this on the world and have it embraced. Gates has a point, is it what they need in the developing world. I would think addressing basic literacy might be the first point.
posted by Steve @ 12:36:00 AM