Researchers Propose $12 Computer for Developing Countries

"I applaud anyone who's trying to get something out there to developing countries, but I just think it's apples and oranges we're looking at here," he said.

Clearly, the XO and its U.S.-based competitor, the Intel Classmate, are quite different from Lomas' ultra-basic computer concept. The XO is a real laptop, albeit not a high-performance one like the MacBook Air.

But just as competition at the sophisticated high end of the computer market has engineered remarkable innovations, competition at the low end will also bring innovation.

"[It's] one more example of the size of the competition Nick Negroponte kicked off when he first proposed the $100 laptop," technology forecaster Paul Saffo wrote in an e-mail. "And of course very much goes with the grain of Moore's law."

First mentioned by an Intel co-founder in the 1960s, Moore's Law states that every year, more transistors can be place on a circuit doubles every two years. The idea behind the law is that technology will exponentially get cheaper, faster and more useful.

Walter Bender, the former president of OLPC's software and content, is heartened by the group's new competitors and Lomas' project, even if he doesn't think it's completely practical.

"It's a very limited way of thinking about how you use computers and what you use computers for and how we use computers for our own learning," he said. "Nonetheless it's certainly one approach in a problem that needs many solutions. ... It's certainly better than nothing, and for a lot of people that's the choice."

"There must be 30 different offerings in that space now, and some of them will be interesting," said Bender. "It's great that there are people who are working in the space now."

But not all consumer electronics expansion into the outdoor urban markets of Third World countries is going to be for solely altruistic reasons.

"In general, we see now the entire PC market more concentrated on the developing world, whether it's Brazil or China or India," said Steve Baker, an analyst at NPD Group. In the United and States and Western Europe, "the markets for computers are pretty well saturated and are very mature. ... And the PC companies or anybody who wants to sell to those markets is going to have to create product that deals with the income levels and usage patterns that go on in those places."

Baker called the MIT presentation "a nice idea," but questioned whether, at least in India, this was something that consumers wanted or needed.

"This is a nice thing but obviously the XO [people] have had a difficult time getting their propositions up and running and these guys are likely to find the same kind of thing happen," he said. "Maybe we'd better off providing [electricity]."

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