January 26, 2006
Almost everyone who learns about Nicholas Negroponte's effort to distribute millions of laptop computers to kids in developing nations has an opinion about the plan. Surprisingly, it's often a negative opinion: If Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC) ever appeared on the ballot, I would hate to have money riding on the outcome.
Fortunately, that's a non-issue. Negroponte and his colleagues have already taken OLPC from its conception at the World Economic Forum last January; through the rollout of a working prototype last November; and now into active talks with representatives from China, India, Brazil, Egypt, Thailand, and other interested nations. When it comes to turning Negroponte's dream into facts on the ground, these are the opinions that really matter, just as they should be.And now the United Nations is on board: U.N. Development Program head Kemal Dervis,signed a memorandum of understanding with Negroponte in Davos, Switzerland last week, where the two were attending this year's WEF meeting. Any mention of the U.N., of course, gets plenty of eye-rolling and "oh, that'll help"-type comments these days, too, especially in conservative political circles. International development policy, however, is an area where the U.N. wields more than just theoretical influence; its approval and support of the project could convince some nations currently sitting on the fence to come down and get into the game. The U.N. endorsement has already set off a wave of generally positive PR for the project, as publications ranging from Moldova.orgto AllAfrica.com brought the news to their readers. What will the nations now in talks with OLPC, or rather their school-age populations, get for slightly more than $100 (the project is still a few dollars per unit above its target production cost, although economies of scale should close the gap)? As Ars Technica's Peter Pollack so succinctly describes it: The device is to be a small version of a common laptop, with screen and keyboard sections pivoting around a central cylinder. The screen can be used in a traditional laptop position, as well as rotated all the way around the cylinder for portrait display of electronic books. A yellow crank attached to one end of the cylinder turns a tiny generator which provides power when no other source is available. The laptop has a 7-inch display, wireless networking, a 500 MHz processor, and runs on Linux. . . The laptops are expected to be paid for by national governments and private contributions, then distributed free to the children. Production is will begin when 5 million to 10 million units have been paid for . . . If the idea of turning millions of kids in these nations loose with inexpensive, functional, Internet-enabled (and Linux-powered!) laptop computers captures your imagination, join the club: As outside-the-box thinking goes, it's hard to think of an investment with the potential to deliver greater good per dollar invested than this one.
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