Are politics delaying the $100 laptop?

In the year since MIT's Nicholas Negroponte unveiled his prototype, he has found himself wrestling with Microsoft and software politics.

DAVOS, Switzerland--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.

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 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 PCs and laptops during a public discussion here at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Craig Mundie, a Microsoft vice president and chief technical officer, said in an interview here that the company is still developing the idea, but that both he and Gates believe that cell phones are a better way than laptops to bring computing to the masses in developing nations.

"Everyone is going to have a cell phone," Mundie said, noting that in places where TVs 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.

Mundie said there was no firm timing for the cell phone 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 Negroponte's decision to use free open-source software in the laptop instead of Windows spurred the alternative plan from Microsoft. But Gates has been privately bitter about it, and Mundie has been skeptical in public about the project's chance of success.

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

This has not deterred Negroponte. At a private breakfast meeting on the digital divide at the forum on Saturday, Negroponte said that he had a commitment from Quanta Computer of Taiwan to manufacture the portable computers, which would initially use a processing chip from Advanced Micro Devices of Sunnyvale, Calif. He also said he had raised $20 million to pay for engineering and was close to a final commitment of $700 million from seven nations--Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, India, China, Brazil and Argentina--to purchase 7 million of the laptops.

Also on Saturday, Negroponte's nonprofit group, One Laptop Per Child, signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations Development Program at a news conference here, under which the two will work together to develop technology and learning resources.

Negroponte is showing only a mockup of his laptop, which will have a carrying handle, built-in stereo speakers, a wireless data connection, a hand crank to generate power and a screen that is visible even in bright sunlight. He said that he hopes to be able to hand out working laptops next year to some participants at the forum in Davos.

He also acknowledged that months of discussions with Microsoft and Apple Computer about using their operating system software for his computer had been fruitless, and that as a result, the laptops would use a version of Linux, the open-source operating system.

According to several people familiar with the discussions, Microsoft had encouraged Negroponte to consider using the Windows CE version of its software, and Microsoft had been prepared to make an open-source version of the program available.

Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, had also offered a free version of his company's OS X operating system, but Negroponte rejected that idea because the software was largely not open-source, meaning people could not get free access to software and its source code, which they could then modify. Negroponte said in an interview here that he had resolved to use 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."

At the same time, Negroponte, who is on the board of Motorola, said he is not opposed to the idea of building a low-cost computer using a cell phone. He said his research group at the MIT Media Lab had experimented with the idea of a cell phone that would project a computer display onto a wall and also project the image of a keyboard, sensing the motion of fingers over it. But the researchers decided the idea was less practical than a laptop.

Some business and development policy specialists have raised questions about Negroponte's laptop, pointing to the price of Internet connectivity, which can cost $24 to $50 a month in developing nations. But Negroponte said networking costs would not be an obstacle because the laptops would be made to connect automatically in a so-called mesh network, making it possible for up to 1,000 computers to wirelessly share just one or two land-based Internet connections.

The Media Lab researchers are also planning to approach an upcoming meeting of the international consortium overseeing GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) for cell phones about setting up a data standard that would allow low-cost and educational use of wireless network capacity.

"We call the concept 'standby bits,'" Negroponte said, explaining that the concept is similar to the way standby passengers on airlines can travel when there are empty seats. The laptops would send and receive Internet data only when higher-paying commercial data was not being transmitted.

At the Davos meeting, a number of participants raised questions about the wisdom of Negroponte's plan to persuade governments to underwrite the cost of the laptops.

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," Gannes said.

Negroponte said that "a lot of people were apprehensive" about the project before he won the backing from Quanta, but that he believed he had put the doubts to rest. Quanta manufactures about one-third of the world's laptop computers, he said.

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