Sunday, February 04, 2007

The $100 computer

Two IT industry heavyweights are vying for Third World computer markets. On the one hand there is Nicholas Negroponte, an IT guru whose nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child is trying to develop a children’s computer – the XO is designed to sell for $100 by the end of 2008.
photoNegroponte shows a prototype of his $100 computer at Davos 2007

In the other corner there is Craig Barrett ex-chairman of Intel who is busily developing a similar low-cost computer. The two are trading in head-to-head competition. Negroponte positions himself as the good guy.

“Craig and I sometimes argue, and he called our thing a ‘gadget,’ ” Mr. Negroponte said, referring to the XO. “I’m glad to see he’s got his own gadget now. Craig has to look at this as a market, and I look at this as a mission.”

This combative stance is doing little to forge a common strategy that helps bring computer technology to advance economic and educational development. I suppose that it does give choice.

These high-level fancy technology projects always seem a bit pie in the sky to me. I’m inclined to leave them to someone else and to focus my own energy on what can be achieved here and now – like the School of St Jude which is one of the best schools in Northern Tanzania. It provides free education (no extra charges, the school even provides lunches, uniforms and bus transport) for bright children from the poorest families.

Computer lesson at School of St Jude

The Bill + Melinda Gates Foundation started out with a primary focus on the long term goal of finding a vaccine for malaria and funded several major medical research projects. However, in response to criticism that this long-term approach neglected the immediate problem, the Foundation has directed some funds to more immediate project. A $35 million grant to Zambia to fund nets, existing drugs, and insecticide is expected to reduce malaria mortality by 75% in the next five years.

Little people like us can work on the immediate needs – our small dollars can achieve thousands of small benefits to millions of individuals. The big guys like governments and billionaires can work on long-term projects as well as the immediate ones.

In the time it takes to develop a radically cheap computer, get it made, sell it to poor countries and get it into classrooms (many of which don’t have electricity) a whole generation of children will have passed through the computer rooms at the School of St Jude.

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