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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Inventor Aiming to Put Poor Online

DAVOS, Switzerland -- It sounds like a project that just about any technology-minded executive could get behind: distributing durable, cheap laptop computers in the developing world to help education.

But in the year since Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, unveiled his prototype for a $100 laptop, he has found himself wrestling with Microsoft and the politics of software.

Negroponte has made significant progress, but he has also catalyzed the debate over the role of computing in poor nations -- and ruffled a few feathers. He failed to reach an agreement with Microsoft on including its Windows software in the laptop, leading Microsoft executives to start discussing what they say is a less-expensive alternative: turning a specially configured cell phone into a computer by connecting it to a television and a keyboard.

Bill Gates, Microsoft's co-founder and chairman, demonstrated a mockup of his proposed cellular PC at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, and he mentioned it as a cheaper alternative to traditional PCs and laptops during a public discussion here at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Craig Mundie, Microsoft's vice president and chief technology officer, said in an interview here that the company was still developing the idea, but that both he and Gates believed that cell phones were a better way than laptops to bring computing to the masses in developing nations.

"Everyone is going to have a cell phone," Mundie said, noting that in places where televisions are already common, turning a phone into a computer could simply require adding a cheap adaptor and keyboard.

Mundie said there was no firm timing for the cell phone strategy, but that the company had encouraged such innovations in the past by building prototypes for manufacturers.

It is not clear to what extent Negroponte's decision to use free open-source operating system software in the laptop instead of Windows spurred the alternative plan from Microsoft. But Gates has been privately bitter about it, and Mundie has been skeptical in public about the project's chance of success.

"I love what Nick is trying to do," Mundie said. "We have a lot of concerns about the sustainability of his approach."

This has not deterred Negroponte. At a private meeting on Saturday, he said he had a commitment from Quanta Computer of Taiwan to manufacture the computers, had raised $20 million for engineering and was close to a final commitment of $700 million from seven nations -- Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, India, China, Brazil and Argentina -- to purchase 7 million laptops.

Also on Saturday, Negroponte's nonprofit group, One Laptop Per Child, signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN Development Program at a news conference to develop technology and learning resources.

Negroponte is showing only a mock-up of his laptop, which will have a carrying handle, built-in stereo speakers, a wireless data connection and a hand crank to generate power. He said that he hoped to be able to hand out working laptops to some participants at the forum in Davos next year.