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So why the huge popularity of the $100 laptop project – which is heralded everywhere, from NPR to ABC? For one, economics still favor the laptop. Most cell phones that could rival the power of a PC are still high-end products. More importantly, though, the laptop is a better tool for engaging youths in educational material.

“Cell phones make a lot of sense from a certain standpoint,” says John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation advocacy group. “They’re great for calling and for a certain kind of e-mail. But if you want to experience cyberspace in any meaningful way you can’t do it with a cell phone.”

Seymour Papert, professor emeritus at MIT and a $100 laptop team member who’s developing educational initiatives for the machine, balks at the idea of using cell phones. “If we think of technology as purely access to information, and education as access to information, you might start making a case for the cell phone,” he says. “But education is not just access to information. It’s doing things, making things. You can’t program on a cell phone.”

Furthermore, says Papert, once children become familiar with the laptop, there’s so much they can do – even if a functioning network isn’t in place and the device isn’t hooked up to the Internet. “A non-connected computer is more valuable than a connected cell phone,” he says.

Raul Zambrano, a policy advisor with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – an organization that announced its partnership with the $100 laptop program at Davos – says that focusing on the device itself is missing the mark. “What’s important is how much it costs to connect to the network,” he says. In Africa, cell phone users don’t have to pay for incoming calls. Certainly, with a cell phone-based outreach program, Zambrano argues, users would have to pay to connect to the Internet. “That’s a big challenge.”

Zambrano and the UNDP aren’t opposed to players such as Microsoft getting involved – as long as their primary goal is to foster education. Indeed, Zambrano says he would support a Microsoft-led initiative if it involved a tablet PC, for example, because it would be easier for children to read text on its screen versus a cell phone. “But they’re too expensive right now,” he says.

Whichever device ends up being most useful in third-world cultures as a conduit for information and education, the entire world will benefit, as millions of minds are stimulated. “The human brain is just as subtle and sophisticated in Africa as anywhere else,” says EFF’s Barlow. “They’re just not hooked in.”

Home page image courtesy of MIT’s Media Lab and Design Continuum.

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