18 November, 2005

$100 laptops and the end of US tech-innovation?

So the National Academies are worried about technological innovation in the US in the coming years. Apparently, competition from growing economic powers (such as China and India, to name two obvious examples) will soon overtake the drive to innovation in technology that's characterized the US market for some time now. This concern counters recent consensus among economists and intellectual-property scholars that allayed fears over a moribund US technological prowess by reminding us that copyright laws abroad are simply behind the current state of such laws in the US. Therefore, the argument goes, why would anyone care to innovate when chances are another manufacturer down the line could simply take your product and either replicate it (in the case of media), or reproduce a copy that is as faithful to the original as a Catholic priest's chastity is true to God? (Just in case it wasn't already obvious, the quintessential example that would prove the rule is none other than the People's Republic of China, where pirated DVDs are not only available "fresh off the streets", but even on store shelves in downtown Beijing.)

Of course, the defenders of a status-quo in tech innovation ignore one basic and obvious question: who's to say copyright laws won't change and adapt to growing pressure from consumers, not only here in the US, but elsewhere in the world? And what, you might ask, is the necessary condition for such a change to be possible? Oh, I don't know, a four-letter term called "lobbying power" maybe? Nay-sayers argue that American college students are simply shunning the sciences, while students abroad embrace them (see the first link in this post for more). To boot, I would add, are the many efforts afoot to curbe the festering digital divide between people with the means to use today's cutting-edge technology and those who lack these means. The open-source community (and IBM and Google, including media mogul Rupert Murdoch), NGOs, even Microsoft's offered a scheme to market Windows on the cheap (but also the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, though this one aims at more than just the digital divide).

But now the UN is backing a move to give the world's poorest kids durable and power-efficient lime-green and yellow laptops (the color scheme is meant to stimulate a feeling of "playfulness"). These $100 laptops even come with the option to switch between color or black-and-white (which apparently produces a more brilliant image) displays, lack backlights (which means more juice for extended-hours of usage) and connect to other laptops through what is called "mesh networking" (another promising technology in the global push to make information freer). You might wonder what steps they're taking to prevent theft? Says Nicholas Negroponte, head of the innitiave, that supplying these machines in the millions should take care of the problem. (Indeed, the program will only enroll countries that commit to purchase at least one million units).

Here's to hoping...

Update: For detailed snapshots of the laptop, go here. One important feature I forgot to mention is that the laptops come with hand-cranks, to account for the lack of dependable sources of electricity in many places where these laptops would be used.

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