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Laptop bid to bridge digital divide

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- When an academic computer researcher announced plans last year to create a "$100 laptop" to be distributed as an educational resource to schoolchildren across the world many in the computer world dismissed him as one bit short of a byte.

The sceptics included industry heavyweights Apple's Steve Jobs, who described the laptop as a "science project," and Intel's Craig Barrett, who called it "a gadget."

Earlier this year even Bill Gates weighed into the argument, criticizing the computer's technical limitations and battery-charging handcrank and commenting in exasperation, "Geez, get a decent computer."

But Nicholas Negroponte, the man behind the "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) project, this week took a large step towards proving his critics wrong with the announcement of a $250 million deal to supply 1.2 million machines to Libya in June 2008.

Negroponte, a researcher at MIT Media Lab, told the New York Times the deal would likely help the north African country achieve the distinction of being the first anywhere in the world to connect every school-age child to the Internet via their own computer.

But that could just be a start with Negroponte setting out plans to distribute up to 500 million of the machines over the next five years.

"I hope that in 10 years every child on the planet will be connected," Negroponte told the Financial Times earlier this year. "OLPC is not about learning something, it is about learning learning.

"Children make things with their laptops, they explore and communicate. The speed with which a child will acquire the knowledge to use the device is so astonishing, you risk thinking it is genetic."

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is reportedly also keen on purchasing further computers for poorer African nations including Chad, Niger and Rwanda while OLPC has agreed tentative purchase agreements with countries including Brazil, Argentina, Thailand and Nigeria.

Endorsed as an "expression of global solidarity" by U.N General Secretary Kofi Annan, big name backers for the project now include Google and Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp.

Most importantly of all though, the computer itself is no longer a concept but a robust and lightweight working prototype. The first test models will be distributed next month with mass production by Taiwanese manufacturers Quanta due to start next year.

Created by Swiss designer Yves Behar, it features wireless Internet connectivity, a video camera, flash memory and an eight-hour battery that can be recharged without plugging into a power supply -- although Behar admitted to Wired magazine that the handcrank to which Gates took offence was being re-considered.

But with the major technical issues resolved, the biggest obstacle OLPC's developers still face could be convincing potential users in the developing world that a laptop computer is the answer to their problems

"If you live in a mud hut, what use is that computer for your children who don't have a doctor within walking distance?" asked one participant at last year's World Summit in Tunisia, where an early design was presented.

"It is a very clever marketing tool, " Malian Mohammed Diop told CNN. "Under the guise of non-profitability hundreds of millions of these laptops will be flogged off to our governments. They've finally found a way of selling to a huge number of poor people."

Yet OLPC's goals appear to be in step with government plans across the developing world for growing levels of investment in IT networks.

Earlier this year Ethiopia -- a country where just 1.2 percent of the population has a telephone -- announced plans to spend around $100 million on a scheme to link almost every village via satellite broadband within three years.

And although early buyers are likely to pay around $150 per machine -- rather than the headline-grabbing $100 figure that had been targeted -- prices are expected to fall as production is ramped up.

Still, perhaps it's no wonder that Bill Gates remains unconvinced by the project: in order to keep costs down it also utilizes the open source software such as the Linux operating system -- in preference to Microsoft's Windows.

Nicholas Negroponte, right, shows off a prototype laptop to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.




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