Microsoft Would Put Poor Online By Cell Phone

Monday, January 30, 2006

It sounds like a project that just about any technology-minded executive could get behind: distributing durable, cheap laptop computers in the developing world to help education. But in the year since Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, unveiled his prototype for a $100 laptop, he has found himself wrestling with Microsoft and the politics of software.

Mr. Negroponte has made significant progress, but he has also catalyzed the debate over the role of computing in poor nations ? and ruffled a few feathers. He failed to reach an agreement with Microsoft on including its Windows software in the laptop, leading Microsoft executives to start discussing what they say is a less expensive alternative: turning a specially configured cellular phone into a computer by connecting it to a TV and a keyboard.

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder and chairman, demonstrated a mockup of his proposed cellular PC at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, and he mentioned it as a cheaper alternative to traditional PC’s and laptops during a public discussion here at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Craig J. Mundie, Microsoft’s vice president and chief technology officer, said in an interview here that the company was still developing the idea, but that both he and Mr. Gates believed that cellphones were a better way than laptops to bring computing to the masses in developing nations. “Everyone is going to have a cellphone,” Mr. Mundie said, noting that in places where TV’s are already common, turning a phone into a computer could simply require adding a cheap adaptor and keyboard. Microsoft has not said how much those products would cost.

Mr. Mundie said there was no firm timing for the cellphone strategy, but that the company had encouraged such innovations in the past by building prototypes for consumer electronics manufacturers.

It is not clear to what extent Mr. Negroponte’s decision to use free open-source software in the laptop instead of Windows spurred the alternative plan from Microsoft. But Mr. Gates has been privately bitter about it, and Mr. Mundie has been skeptical in public about the project’s chance of success.

“I love what Nick is trying to do,” Mr. Mundie said. “We have a lot of concerns about the sustainability of his approach.”


Stuart Gannes, director of the Digital Vision Program at Stanford University, said a better way to bring computers into poor countries would be to put them into the hands of entrepreneurs and make them revenue generators. “We need to look at technology as a way to bring cash into the poorest communities,” Mr. Gannes said.

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Source: The New York Times (link opens in a new window)