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Efforts to get information technology into the hands of people in Third World nations are a huge cultural imperative and a significant business opportunity. But what form those efforts should take is a matter of debate, if a keynote panel discussion Wednesday at Sand Hill Group's Software 2005 conference in Santa Clara, Calif., is any indication.
Much of the discussion, which provided a welcome respite from all the talk of business processes and product strategy, revolved around two initiatives designed to propagate laptops throughout the Third World. Nicholas Negroponte, the noted MIT professor and chairman of MIT's Media Laboratory, was on hand to share details of a project he's spearheading that's designed to put laptops in the hands of elementary-school students by driving the cost of a barebones machine down to less than $100. Meanwhile, Advanced Micro Devices Inc., a partner in Negroponte's project, is promoting its $185 personal Internet communicator as a key device in the company's campaign to ensure that half of the world's population has access to the Internet by 2015.
Both efforts are somewhat out of touch, said Teresa Peters, executive director of Bridges.org, a nonprofit group that's taking a close look at what technologies are the best match for people in developing nations. Peters maintained that even at $100, laptops are too complex and cumbersome to be effective for Third World children. She also stressed that the U.S.-centric nature of Internet content is a barrier to adoption that needs to be addressed. "My recipe for success is it has to be small, cheap, simple, and local."
Negroponte disagreed on two counts: He's convinced that laptops are preferable for educational efforts because smaller devices don't provide the viewing experience needed to draw children in. And he believes the fearless relationship children tend to have with technology makes it unnecessary to provide culturally contextual content out of the gate. "When you've invented the printing press, you don't need to write all the books," Negroponte said. "It is enough to just give a child connectivity and a computer. That gets them 70% of the way there."
Negroponte acknowledged that there are flaws in the methods of the MIT program, known as $100 Laptop Corp., but that it's important to start somewhere. Still, one conference attendee questioned that premise, stepping up to a microphone to offer the panelists a provocative thought. "This sounds like the technological colonization of the Third World," the attendee said. "I'm concerned that we're just pushing technology without having a viable objective."