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US$100 laptop steals limelight from better solutions

As one who has long believed that the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative (see PCs for the poor: as good as their hype?) is misguided, I must admit that it has been a winner in one sense.

Its chair Nicholas Negroponte has framed (or constrained) the discussion in ways that keep the focus on his device, while failing (or refusing) to address the substantial issues raised from within the educational and technology communities.

The result is to ignore the technology efforts of others, especially those in developing countries. This keeps Negroponte and his laptop centre stage, and that is unfortunate for all concerned.

The list of issues surrounding the education and welfare of children in developing counties is long and for the most part ignored by the OLPC initiative.

Educational budgets cannot provide sufficient teachers, never mind teachers trained to incorporate such technology into the child's learning experience. Funds could be more appropriately used to train and deploy more, better-qualified, teachers.

In terms of technology alone, the OLPC laptop looks to be a device whose time has passed. Bill Gates has already noted that the cell phone is the real IT revolution in developing countries. New cell phones with USB ports, keyboard and monitor capabilities are closing in on the niche claimed by OLPC. They are more robust than laptops and will operate on both the cell network or via wireless internet access.

Other developing country and joint-effort computer initiatives tend to be overlooked.

Increasingly, for instance, computing is moving toward an advanced version of 'thin-clients' that access service applications over the internet without the need to install them on the user's device first (Google's online spreadsheet for example).

Among the frequently overlooked efforts are those of India's Novatium, whose thin-client Nova netPC and Nova netTV devices are in the beta testing stage. Another is the joint South African and British Ndiyo project. Their Nivo device costs less than US$200, runs on open-source software and has ports for ethernet, keyboard, mouse, monitor and power. It also supports multiple simultaneous users.

To those of us who see the OLPC initiative as a wrong turn, it is sad that the marketing efforts surrounding it have obscured the non-technical educational issues facing the world's children. In winning the limelight, it has hindered reporting on more creative technology initiatives being undertaken in developing countries themselves.