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Update on Connecting the Poor

January 30, 2007


Last December I wrote a post about effort to get computers in the hands of students currenly living in poverty [Connecting the Poor]. The post was about a non-profit project called One Laptop Per Child being spearheaded by Nicholas P. Negroponte, the former director of the MIT Media Laboratory. In that post, I noted that Negroponte’s efforts were not welcomed on all fronts. Opposition is especially heavy from the commercial IT sector which sees the manufacturing and distribution of cheap computers as an assault on its markets. Head of the opposition movement is Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Intel, whose company has an inexpensive for-profit laptop offering of its own (although not as inexpensive as Negroponte’s XO computer prototype). The latest round in this confrontation is taking place in Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s economic powers are meeting [“At Davos, the Squabble Resumes on How to the Wire the Third World,” by John Markoff, New York Times, 29 January 2007]. Markoff notes that concern over the environment is threatening to shove connecting the third world to the side of the world stage and that the squabbling isn’t helping the situation.

“Mr. Barrett, speaking about Intel’s efforts to train teachers to use personal computers, said that it is impressive to see what students ‘are able to accomplish with some help from a teacher,’ adding, ‘You can literally change people’s lives.’ But Mr. Negroponte suggested that Intel executives had engaged in a campaign to discourage world leaders from committing to purchasing his laptop systems. Mr. Negroponte also accused Intel of marketing its strategy to the developing world. ‘Craig and I sometimes argue, and he called our thing a “gadget,”‘ Mr. Negroponte said, referring to the XO. ‘I’m glad to see he’s got his own gadget now. Craig has to look at this as a market, and I look at this as a mission.’ Other executives suggested the dispute was doing little to forge a common strategy to use computing to advance economic and educational development.”

Barrett has a bully pulpit from which to promote his views. He is now chairman of the United Nations Global Alliance for Information and Communications Technologies and Development.  Markoff notes that Barrett and Negroponte come at the problem of connecting the third world from very different perspectives.

“At the Davos session, Mr. Barrett sketched out a four-point program for getting involvement from emerging economies including affordable hardware, low-cost data communications, local curriculum and educators. In contrast, Mr. Negroponte offered a vision based on working through children. He attacked projects that instruct teachers and students how to use programs like Microsoft Office.”

Because Negroponte does not have corporate billions backing his project, he is relying on the backing of third world governments.

“It is still not certain whether Mr. Negroponte will succeed in his crusade. At the meeting, he said he now has eight handshake agreements with heads of state, including the recent additions of Rwanda and Uruguay. However, he has also said that he will not begin manufacturing the laptop in volume unless he has firm commitments from one country each in Asia, South America and Africa. Other countries that have expressed interest include Brazil, Argentina, Libya, Nigeria, Thailand, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Mexico. During an interview here, he said he now expects firm commitments by March and for manufacturing to begin in April. Despite his publicly combative stance with respect to Intel, Mr. Negroponte has apparently moved to patch up his disagreements with Microsoft, and a version of Windows may be available from governments that chose that software instead of the Linux that the One Laptop Per Child organization is developing. One Laptop officials said that the computer might cost $10 to $20 more to run Windows, because of hardware support.”

In my earlier post, I noted that Negroponte’s XO comes with Wi-Fi capability and that one of the really innovative aspects of this Wi-Fi connectivity is that it allows the children to stay connected, even after school, in effect making each computer a Wi-Fi hotspot for the community. Markoff reports that companies are coming forward with proposals that will help provide inexpensive backbone networks.

“Separately at the meeting on Saturday, John Gage, the chief researcher at Sun Microsystems, proposed an industry plan to deploy advanced data networks in developing economies with contributions of engineering staff time of 1 percent. Mr. Gage, who headed the NetDay project for connecting American schools to the Internet, said that rural areas in the developing world would cost as little as a $1,000 a kilometer, compared with $1 million to deploy a network over the same distance in New York City.”

It is heartening to see contributions of time and talent coming forth. These volunteer engineers will help form the kinds of communities of practice that we suggest are necessary to make a Development-in-a-Box™ successful. Let’s hope that Negroponte and Barrett can put aside their feuding and help develop a plan that place computers in the hands of poor children so that getting them educated and connected can take place alongside getting them healthy.

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