While many people have been working on the technical challenges of providing low cost computing to emerging communities, a couple of months back I had proposed a different and related challenge to my immediate friends and free software professionals from several organizations. This challenge was not based on how to deliver ever lower cost physical computing, but rather why and how such solutions can and should be delivered through free software. Further, in the project outline I started and others have helped with, I choose to focus on and challenge others to consider how we can make such technology serve communities, not just in traditional roles, but as vehicles for distance education, for enabling cultural participation, for entertainment, for global economic participation, for enabling digital libraries and shared forms of learning, for enabling communities to share and fully enjoy free culture and free knowledge. This ideal was embodied and expressed in my outline within the model of the Hipatia community telecenter project.
I was happy to see this project taken up by groups outside of the free software community, including places as diverse as the Chela which focuses on technical arts and digital culture in Latin America, and a soon to be initiated pilot project in India. However, I also do have a great deal of respect for those who have chosen different approaches or to focus on other aspects and issues facing emerging communities to try and achieve many of the same goals.
Perhaps the best known such project is the MIT Media Labs $100 One Laptop Per Child program. There are others who have looked into this issue from an honest perspective as well. Even in our telecenter project and ideas, we have found it possible to collaborate with those who have different ideas and goals, but understand and are truly interested in serving the needs of emerging communities. There are several others who have ideas for hardware in this area, and while I will not pre-announce anyone else's projects, I will say that there are likely to be many different groups involved in such efforts in the very near future.
All of those I have spoken with or met, or am aware of being interested in the question of emerging communities, even some who are less focused on software freedom, have also chosen to understand the actual communities involved, and work within their real needs, even when considering very different approaches, with one notable exception. All have also been open to cooperation in their respective areas, again with one notable exception that seems determined to sabotage such efforts unless they are done that one companies way.
This one exception chooses to engage in a deliberate disinformation campaign both in public and in private conversations with national governments to sabotage the efforts of others. At the same time, this organization chooses to promote it's own idea divorced from the actual needs of emerging communities and focused purely on their own vision on how to turn such communities into consumers of other people's products. Rather than empowering emerging communities, this organization chooses to sell deliberately crippled versions of their current products and otherwise offers completely ineffective solutions while actively sabotaging the efforts of others.
A perfect example is Mr. Gates idea of using cell phones as a means to deliver pre-packaged services developed in and licensed by Microsoft in a restricted fashion by telecom carriers, and hooking them up to television sets. This Microsoft suggests is somehow a "better" solution than the $100 One Laptop per Child project that they try to sabotage, for addressing the "needs" of students in poor communities. Given that these actual needs the $100 laptop had to address included students carrying such machines to and from school, I have to wonder if Microsoft also advocates students carry television sets from their homes each school day.
I envision the use of computer technology for emerging communities as a means to enable them to participate in world culture, and in enabling new educational and economic opportunities where they did not exist before. Unfortunately, it seems Microsoft, alone, sees such communities as places where they can squeeze the last dollar from the world's poor. And so they sabotage others, to meet their own selfish objectives. Some may call it things like anti-trust, or illegal business practices, or even, as suggested by Sergio Amadeu from Brasil, "drug dealer" business practices. I see it simply as the result of a fully selfish organization lead by very selfish individuals.