The folks at One Laptop Per Child deserve a lot of credit for raising global awareness around the global digital divide. Their stylish green laptop, along with the accompanying goal of putting 21st century technology in the hands of children in developing countries, has captured the imagination of people, companies and governments worldwide.
But the nearly half a million orders received from developing countries thus far for the so-called US$100 laptop suggests that this effort to supply the developing world with affordable PCs may be too late.
That's because the developing world has been swept up in the mobile voice revolution, which has far outpaced the spread of desktop and laptop computers. Current global mobile phone users number nearly 3 billion, and 1.3 billion of those users are able to access the Internet using their handheld devices. That compares with roughly 1.1 billion desktop users with Web access worldwide.
And it is estimated that by 2010, half the world's population will have mobile Internet access, while the growth in desktop and laptop computers is expected to remain fairly flat.
Not that the current generation of mobile phones can do everything a desktop or laptop can do, but with the emergence of the iPhone and efforts to create an open application environment for handsets, we are moving rapidly in that direction. Add in increasing mobile storage capacity, voice-activated search and the ability to project images and keyboards anywhere on the fly, and it will only be a matter of time before anything we want to do on a desktop can be done just as easily on a handheld device.
And in the developing world, where the mobile phone market is growing phenomenally, and where nearly a third of the population is illiterate, cheap laptops may not be the best answer.
A cheap phone with Web access and locally relevant applications may be a better driver for bringing the developing world online. Phones are much simpler to use, allow people to leverage voice as a preferred means of communication and are certainly easier and safer to carry. Mobile banking, which allows the majority of people who are too poor to have a traditional bank account to safely move and store money via mobile phones, has caught on like wildfire in Africa, the Philippines and many other developing nations. In India, one-third of mobile phone owners access the Internet only through their handheld devices.
It would only seem good sense to build on the current mobile explosion in developing regions, leapfrogging the PC. By offering enhanced mobile phone devices - equipped with simple-to-use productivity and education tools - we may be able to reach many more people much faster than current PC digital inclusion efforts allow.
So as much as One Laptop Per Child is a good idea, it may be time to rethink our approach to helping the remaining 80 per cent of the world come online and adopt 21st century technology tools. One BlackBerry per Child may sound like a ludicrous notion, but so did a global distribution of cheap laptops just a few short years ago.