DAVOS, Switzerland : Here at the World Economic Forum, the annual conclave of world leaders, concerns over a growing digital divide this year have taken a back seat to the challenge of climate change.
But that has not dimmed passions over what the best way is to deploy computers in the developing world. The controversy boiled overJanuary 27 at a breakfast meeting here where Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Intel, squared off with Nicholas P. Negroponte, the former director of the MIT Media Laboratory, whose nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child is trying to develop a low-cost computer for the 1.2 billion children in the developing world. His prototype XO computer is designed to sell for $100 by the end of 2008.
Intel has also contributed significant resources to the cause, including its own design for an inexpensive laptop computer, albeit one that is currently more expensive than Negroponte's.But Negroponte suggested that Intel executives had engaged in a campaign to discourage world leaders from committing to purchasing his laptop systems. Negroponte also accused Intel of marketing its strategy to the developing world.Other executives suggested the dispute was doing little to forge a common strategy to use computing to advance economic and educational development.
"I do hear marketing going back and forth between you," said Michael J. Long, a senior vice president at Arrow Electronics, an industry components supplier. "We ought to concentrate on how we can help."The dispute between Negroponte and Barrett, who is also chairman of the U.N. Global Alliance for Information and Communications Technologies and Development, covered both substance and philosophy at the annual digital divide meeting.At the Davos session, Barrett sketched out a four-point program for getting involvement from emerging economies including affordable hardware, low-cost data communications, local curriculum and educators.
In contrast, Negroponte offered a vision based on working through children. "I think they should be making music and playing and communicating," he said. "It has to be a seamless part of their lives."It is still not certain whether Negroponte will succeed in his crusade. At the meeting, he said he now has eight handshake agreements with heads of state, including the recent additions of Rwanda and Uruguay.However, he has also said that he will not begin manufacturing the laptop in volume unless he has firm commitments from one country each in Asia, South America and Africa. Other countries that have expressed interest include Brazil, Argentina, Libya, Nigeria, Thailand, Ethiopia, Pakistan and Mexico.During an interview here, he said he now expects firm commitments by March and for manufacturing to begin in April.