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A great tech innovation for poor kids

The ProJo's Sunday Money & Business section closes the year, sadly, without any staff-written content on the section front, although there is a useful Associated Press piece on the second page about the so-called XO laptop (previously described in the New York Times), a cheap (under $200) computer that is helping to bring poor children into the contemporary age:

Doubts about whether poor, rural children really can benefit from quirky little computers evaporate as quickly as the morning dew in this hilltop Andean village, where 50 primary school children got machines from the One Laptop Per Child project six months ago.

These offspring of peasant families whose monthly earnings rarely exceed the cost of one of the $188 laptops people who can ill afford pencil and paper much less books can't get enough of their "XO" laptops.

At breakfast, they're already powering up the combination library/videocam/audio recorder/music maker/drawing kits. At night, they're dozing off in front of them if they've managed to keep older siblings from waylaying the coveted machines.

"It's really the kind of conditions that we designed for," Walter Bender, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinoff, said of this agrarian backwater up a precarious dirt road.

Founded in 2005 by former MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte, the One Laptop program has retreated from early boasts that developing-world governments would snap up millions of the pint-sized laptops at $100 each.

In a backhanded tribute, One Laptop now faces homegrown competitors everywhere from Brazil to India and a full-court press from Intel Corp.'s more power-hungry Classmate.

But no competitor approaches the XO in innovation. It is hard drive-free, runs on the Linux operating system and stretches wireless networks with "mesh" technology that lets each computer in a village relay data to the others.

Mass production began last month and Negroponte, brother of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, says he expects at least 1.5 million machines to be sold by next November. Even that would be far less than Negroponte originally envisioned. The higher-than-initially-advertised price and a lack of the Windows operating system, still being tested for the XO, have dissuaded many potential government buyers.

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