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If you won't contribute to OLPC, step aside

Backspin By , Network World
June 19, 2006 12:04 AM ET
Gibbs

Network World - The much-hyped $100 laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC), is considered by most people to be a pretty good idea.

The theory is that an effective, high-tech teaching tool that can be distributed to Third World populations at low cost and doesn't need a huge service infrastructure will improve not only education but ultimately the economies of the countries where it is deployed.

However, not everyone agrees this is a good idea.

Eugene Kaspersky, founder and head of anti-virus research for Kaspersky Labs, steps forward as the latest nay-sayer in an opinion piece dated June 13 on the company's Web site).

In the piece about changes in the anti-virus industry, Kaspersky opines: "A particular cause for concern is programs which advocate 'cheap computers for poor Third World countries' - these further encourage criminal activity on the Internet. Statistics on the number of malicious programs originating from specific countries confirm this: The world leader in virus writing is China, followed by Latin America, with Russia and Eastern European countries not far behind."

Either Kaspersky is courting publicity in a shameless manner, or he is guilty of drawing false conclusions from the data. Certainly, the assertion that current trends driven by a predominantly Windows PC environment can be extrapolated to apply to the OLPC, a device that isn't planned to run Windows, is a stretch.

In fact, considering current Third World-originated computer crime, such as the Nigerian 411 scam, the largest risk would probably be from scammers and phishers: And that's a small price to pay for improving the world. The OLPC project has the potential to transform life for many children and adults, and that far outweighs the potential it might have for virus and malware writers.

Kaspersky is the third person to get publicity on this topic. The other two are Craig Barrett, Intel's chairman, who said, "I think a more realistic title should be 'the $100 gadget'" back in December '05 when Advanced Micro Devices was chosen as the processor supplier (aha!), and Microsoft's Bill Gates.

Gates, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, argued that smart cell phones plugged into televisions and augmented by keyboards would be a better vehicle for computer-enabling the Third World than a PC-style device.In fact, Gates was downright critical of the OLPC and commented: "If you are going to go have people share the computer, get a broadband connection and have somebody there who can help support the user. Geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you're not sitting there cranking the thing while you're trying to type." (The "cranking" reference alludes to an early design of the computer that featured a hand-crank power option, now replaced by a foot-powered generator.)

Gates' argument has to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. It came after Microsoft's offer of an open source version of Windows CE for the OLPC was turned down in favor of Linux (aha! again).

Given there's a huge number of people with significant political and economic power behind the project, wouldn't it be a better strategy to support the initiative rather than try to derail it with what appears to be a self-serving and disingenuous counterproposal?

As for Kapersky, my money is on his comments being a bad piece of thinking as well as disingenuous publicity seeking. But whatever is behind it, Kaspersky is just as wrong about the OLPC as Gates is.

Even if the OLPC project is flawed in some way, it isn't so flawed that it isn't viable. Moreover, there's no alternative that comes close to addressing the obvious need for high-tech Third World educational support.

The OLPC is needed now, and those who don't have anything sensible or practical to add should act responsibly and get the heck out of the way.

Will the OLPC make a difference? Opine on Gibbsblog or write to backspin@gibbs.com.

Read more about security in Network World's Security section.

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