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The Laptop vs. Cell Phone Debate

The cell phone offers an interesting alternative to the $100 laptop; however, the economics don’t add up.
February 3, 2006

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.

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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