Negroponte Vs. Gates: They're Both Right


The article today in the NYT of the third world computing debate at Davos is pretty interesting to me. I will take at face value the idea that third world countries need access to inexpensive computers: Education is definitely the core way to help a people prosper and a self-powered connected computer could do a lot towards that goal. Though I do have to wonder how much more $100 per child could do if it was spent on other priorities, I'll just accept the idea as a good one in general - or at least having the right intent.

That said, I think the laptop prototype that's been shown is ludicrous. I like the fact that it's cheap, self-powered, multi-functional, wireless and based on an open platform such as Linux. But it's an old form-factor and completely ignores what's already happening in the third world. I interviewed someone recently who had worked in the third world and told me what it's like on the ground in some countries in Africa. Mobile phones are already playing a huge part in helping farmers communicate basics like grain prices, and relaying other information which helps their daily lives. Cellular networks can extend miles out to where no other communication is possible. And when there's no electricity? The mobile phone users will send their phone via mail to a friend or relative in the cities to charge up and send back. This stuff is happening right now already - third world users already *have* computers, they're just not created with a general purpose in mind yet. That's all the needs to change, not introduce a totally new and unproven type of computer into the mix.

And economically, it makes much more sense to go with mobile phones as the main computing device. Because they're so popular - billions of mobile phones being made and sold every year - the economies of scale are firmly on their side, rather than a custom, made-to-order laptop with special features found only in that device. No matter how many sponsors Negroponte finds, it just won't make economic sense in the long run to pursue this direction. Bill Gates is right - the focus should be on mobile phones with extended functionality. But obviously, I think he's nuts for pushing Windows - the OS and Intellectual Property has to be open as possible so that local developers can create and extend the functionality of the devices. Negroponte does have the right idea for mesh networks to enable local communication and avoid relatively high Internet tarriffs that may be too expensive for the target of this type of device to pay. An entire town could use one person's connectivity for basics like email with some sort of mesh.

See? In my opinion they're both right - they just need to come to the middle. Negroponte has said he's not against the idea of mobile phones as the computer - his researchers just decided it was "less practical." I think they're wrong. Not only is it practical, it's possible, happening and the most likely to actually continue having an effect long after the backers of this project have gone on to another big crusade.


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