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$100 Laptops Face Hurdles

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M.I.T lit up the world when it announced its massively philanthropic One Laptop Per Child program (OLPC) with the aim of putting $100 laptop computers into the hands of the poorest children on Earth. And no one is blaming them, but despite all noble intentions, skeptics are saying project leader Nicholas Negroponte is putting the cart before the horse.

The latest design, which potentially looks like this, is scheduled for hopeful deployment by the end of this year or early next. China, Brazil, Thailand, and Egypt (among others) have all signed on to purchase the computers for school distribution, replacing costly textbooks and other educational wares.

The major selling points of the computers include a rugged, rubber-bound exterior to keep out moisture and dust, operating on human generated power, and piggyback wireless connectivity.

The first snag in the plan came when the original power concept of a hand crank turned out too tiring for the cranker and too wearing on the machine itself. The team seems to have abandoned the hand crank and is working on an external mechanism.

The hardware may not be the biggest obstacle though–one apparent jury rig master has created one for just $75. Most that criticize the project praise it first and then dismantle the logistics of distribution and practical applications.

The most notable objector has been Bill Gates, who recommended switching to a cellular phone model. Some have dismissed Gates’ proposal as misdirection-a backhanded smack at the Linux operated machines as well as a promotion for Windows CE mobile operating system.

Issue: Black (Gray) Market

The gray market is a term used to describe things legally obtained and then sold illegally. Critics believe that the computers would be given to families and then sold for money elsewhere.

The M.I.T team has addressed this from early on, aiming to give them a distinctive look, childish even, so that it would be apparent if the computer was stolen or sold to those that shouldn’t have them. The buzz phrase for the developers has been “people rarely steal a school bus.” Still, some argue the theory only works if there’s enough stigma or scruples to care about shame, unattractiveness or childishness of design.

Issue: Lack of Infrastructure

The biggest point of contention is that developing nations lack the infrastructure to support a wireless network and reduce the potentially enormous cost of distribution. Many of these countries lack sufficient wireless connection capabilities as well as the teams of technicians required to maintain them.

Project planners feel they have already sidestepped the financial aspects of Internet connection by installing a mesh network that allows one computer to connect to another that is connected to an Internet connection.

In addition to the logistical problem of ensuring so many computers are turned on simultaneously and the actual power that can be generated by hand, doubters feel that solid infrastructures need to be in place before any such program can be implemented.

Also of concern are the so-called “hidden costs” of distribution and who pays for them. Plus, if all fails, the project will have been an enormous waste of money that will have difficulty getting funding once infrastructure is in place in the future.

Optimism Still Survives

M.I.T., sponsors, and supporters are still ascribing to the old “where there’s a will, there’s a way” philosophy.

One rather eloquent Java developer, Jason D. Marshall, believes it has farther reaching benefits than just providing education and technology:

“You can give a man food, water, vaccines. You can keep his children from dying slow, horrible deaths. You can do all of this without giving a man any dignity, or any power over his own destiny. It is my belief that this observation is behind much of what Negroponte and his friends are trying to do.”

Others like the idea of giving the project more power through private sales in developing nations. Parents, who would like to buy their young children a durable, inexpensive computer may be willing to pay $200 or $300 for on of these $100 laptops.

Incentive to do so could be added by knowing that by purchasing one, buyers can send at least one to the children that need a computer, while helping to pay for distribution and development. One commenter at Engadget called the idea a “buy one, give one” concept.

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$100 Laptops Face Hurdles
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