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At the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, last week, a fissure appeared over what technology would be most effective in improving education in the third world. On one side: the highly-publicized One Laptop per Child Project (usually just called the “$100 laptop”), spearheaded by Nicholas Negroponte of MIT’s Media Lab. On the other: a cell phone featuring PC capabilities, an idea that’s being promoted by Microsoft.

The $100 laptop project, first announced at last year’s Davos gathering, aims to distribute seven million computers featuring open-source software, mesh-networking capabilities, and a hand-crank shaft for power, beginning in fall 2006.

Meanwhile, although Microsoft hasn’t announced any products for this rest-of-world market, at the consumer electronics show last month in Las Vegas, Bill Gates demonstrated a mockup of a cell phone that included ports for a keyboard and an external monitor.

And at this year’s Davos meeting, Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s chief technical officer, told the New York Times that he and Bill Gates believed the best way to bring the advances of the digital age to poorer parts of the world was with cell phones. “Everyone is going to have a cell phone,” Mundie said in the Times interview. “We have a lot of concerns about the sustainability of [the laptop] approach.”

Certainly, no one doubts the magnanimity of Negroponte’s effort. But anytime such a huge – and visionary – project is taken on, it becomes a target for second-guessers and naysayers. The $100 laptop effort has been under intense scrutiny since it was first announced a year ago, with critics questioning its feasibility, the decision to have third-world governments distribute them, whether they’ll be targets for thieves, and whether the whole idea smacks of “let them eat cake.”

Shiv Bakhshi, with research firm IDC, thinks that developing nations don’t have the same “cultural constructs” for laptops as they do for cell phones and televisions, and, as a result, their citizens may be less inclined to interact with a laptop.

More pressingly, the laptop project doesn’t have a customer support network. If a laptop breaks down, how will the owner fix it? With cell phones, it’s likely that network providers and possibly handset manufacturers will have support programs in place.

Another argument in favor of cell phones is simply their growing presence. Cell phone sales will reach one billion units by 2009, according to the Gartner Group – with much of the growth coming from developing nations. What’s more, cell phone manufacturers have lowered the cost of their products significantly: in the last 18 months from around $35 per phone to $20, according to European manufacturer Infineon.

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