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Laptop Projects Provoke Conflict

By John Markoff


Here in the Swiss mountains at the World Economic Forum, the annual conclave of world leaders, concerns over a growing digital divide this year have taken a back seat to the challenge of climate change.

Being out of the limelight, however, has not dimmed passions over what the best way is to deploy computers in the developing world. The controversy boiled over on Saturday at a breakfast meeting here where Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Intel, squared off with Nicholas P. Negroponte ’66, the former director of the MIT Media Laboratory, whose nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child is trying to develop a low-cost computer for the 1.2 billion children in the developing world. His prototype XO computer is designed to sell for $100 by the end of 2008.

Intel has also contributed significant resources to the cause, including its own design for an inexpensive laptop computer, albeit one that is currently more expensive than Mr. Negroponte’s.

But Mr. Negroponte suggested that Intel executives had engaged in a campaign to discourage world leaders from committing to purchasing his laptop systems. Mr. Negroponte also accused Intel of marketing its strategy to the developing world.

“Craig and I sometimes argue, and he called our thing a ‘gadget,’ ” Mr. Negroponte said, referring to the XO. “I’m glad to see he’s got his own gadget now. Craig has to look at this as a market, and I look at this as a mission.”

Other executives suggested the dispute was doing little to forge a common strategy to use computing to advance economic and educational development.

Mr. Negroponte, who has quarreled publicly with both Microsoft and Intel executives in his quest to give simple portable machines to hundreds of millions of children, has long been known for his iconoclastic positions on economic development and education.

Recently at the Digital, Life, Design conference in Munich, he introduced himself as the “good bin Laden” — a reference to the notion that his low-cost laptop is terrorizing some companies in the computer industry because of the possibility that it will transform markets for personal computers in the developing world.