John Paul

One Cellphone per Child?

The New York Times posted an interesting article today talking about the politics of open-source software, and its consequences to the much vaunted One Laptop Per Child program.

According to the article, Dr. Negroponte’s decision to furnish his program’s inexpensive laptops with open-source Linux software instead of the proprietary Windows operating system has ?ruffled a few feathers? at Microsoft. Negroponte insists he chose Linux not because it was free but because of its quality and maintainability.

?I chose open-source because it’s better,? he said. ?I have 100 million programmers I can rely on.?

Not to be dissuaded, Microsoft has now started 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. The company has even gone so far as to demonstrate a mockup of the cellular PC at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month.

?Turning a phone into a computer could simply require adding a cheap adaptor and keyboard,? notes Craig J. Mundie, Microsoft’s VP and CTO, stating that both he and Mr. Gates believed that cellphones were a better way than laptops to bring computing to the masses. “Everyone is going to have a cellphone.”

That may be true, but not everyone is going to have Microsoft’s ?specially configured? phone. In fact, mobile companies including Infineon and Motorola are racing to develop cheaper handsets for this emerging market, and will likely grab a large market share long before Microsoft enters the fray. The Media Lab itself has experimented with expanding the utility of mobile devices, and one company, VKB, has already developed a phone that uses a red laser to illuminate a virtual keyboard outline on virtually any surface.

Inspite of it’s many problems, the One Laptop Per Child program also continues to gain momentum. Negroponte has raised another $20 million to pay for further engineering on the device, and is close to a final commitment of $700 million from seven nations–Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, India, China, Brazil and Argentina–to purchase seven million of the laptops. In another encouraging development, the One Laptop Per Child NGO has signed a memorandum of understanding with the UNDP under which the two will work together to develop technology and learning resources.

So it seems for the moment that Microsoft’s recent push for the cellular solution won?t take any wind out of Negroponte’s sails. The real story here, however, is that two well-funded and innovative teams are leading the growing pack of competitors seeking to bring computers to the masses.

Just remember, it wasn?t too long ago that ?groundbreaking research? shocked the world by proving that kids in developing countries could actually learn to use computers.