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The $100 laptop -- is it a wind-up?

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

story.laptop.jpg
The computer is described as a "stripped down" laptop.
start quoteIf you live in a mud hut, what use is that computer for your children who don't have a doctor within walking distance?end quote
-- Conference participant

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The World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunisia was the latest forum where a green "laptop"-- weighing one kilogram and not reliant on electricity -- was the center of attention with its inventor claiming that the $100 machine will help eradicate poverty.

At the launch of the computer in a packed conference room at the Kram Center in Tunisia, the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the information technology gap between the developed world and African nations to be bridged.

But as he attempted to turn the machine's crank handle, to demonstrate its durability and easy functioning, it came off in his hand. The signal, perhaps, for the more cynical to question whether the green machine is merely a wind up.

Flagged up as a low-cost computer for the masses, this cheap computer is the brain child of Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The immediate beneficiaries are to be children and Negroponte's non-profit group called One Laptop Per Child, will sell the machines directly to governments in the developing world. They will distribute the computers to children in remote rural communities. The laptop would then belong to the child.

With a minimum order of one million, countries have been chosen on the basis of large populations without access to digital technology.

Negroponte, who sits on the board of Motorola, calls the $100 computer a "stripped down" laptop and says that profit is not the motive for this scheme.

He quotes the success of a similar pilot project in schools in Massachusetts as the basis for believing that this machine can bridge the digital divide.

Negroponte says that a basic computer can be produced cheaply if complicated technology is stripped away.

Negroponte's plan envisages children using the green laptop in areas where there is sporadic or no electricity -- hence the crank which if turned for 10 minutes would create enough power to run the laptop for half an hour.

But while some critics have suggested that a machine based on the mobile phone model would be more useful, Africans themselves question the entire project.

Marthe Dansokho from Cameroon says that this cheap computer is the result of an insular American-user mind set.

"African women who do most of the work in the countryside don't have time to sit with their children and research what crops they should be planting," she pointed out.

'Wisdom is passed down'

"We know our land and wisdom is passed down through the generations. What is needed is clean water and real schools."

And Marthe was not alone in voicing doubts. Mohammed Diop from Mali, dressed in flowing traditional robes, said that the West, obsessed with cyber crime, junk mail, and viruses, is also sold on the idea of bringing the computers to the really poor.

"It is a very clever marketing tool, " he said. "Under the guise of non-profitability hundreds of millions of these laptops will be flogged off to our governments.

"That's the only way of achieving the necessary economies of scale to get the price low. They've finally found a way of selling to a huge number of poor people."

He also pointed out that some kind of connectivity will be necessary, and that this in turn will require buying satellite dishes or some other means to allow these machines to connect the Internet.

"We haven't yet seen a working model," he pointed out. "But on the dummy there are controls for games. What possible use do poor children have for computer games? I am very skeptical."

Those doubts were voiced by other Africans at the Tunisia Summit. They complained that as the West becomes obsessed with gadgets, they can only think of new marketing ploys to get Africa to take out loans in order to buy what they don't need.

"If you live in a mud hut," one participant asked, "what use is that computer for your children who don't have a doctor within walking distance?"

Whiff of optimism

But the green prototype did bring a whiff of optimism to the summit in Tunis.

Such is the advance publicity for The One Laptop Per Child that the stand was mobbed by people from the developing world asking if they could buy one for their children.

Some had saved up for over a year to come up with the $100 price -- less than a tenth of the cost of a commercial computer.

Already disadvantaged in many ways, no-one wanted to be left out.

Some of the crowd were from regions in west Africa where barely three of every 100 people are on the net. They believed it could have a dramatic effect on education, medicine and farming.

The last word goes to GiseleYitamben from Cameroon who pointed out the problem of recycling the hundreds of millions of computers MIT's Media Lab intends to distribute to Africa.

Just as the EU is introducing stringent new rules to encourage the recycling of computers, foisting these green machines on the unsuspecting African continent could simply compound already existing environmental problems.

"Do they think these machines will last forever, "she questioned. "What will happen when they break down?"

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