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Published: Sunday, 10/9/2005

A computer on every lap

SCHOOL districts have distributed laptop computers to students in the past, helping to bridge the "digital divide," the gap between individuals who can afford computers and those who cannot. Through private partnerships and government grants, these programs have opened up new educational opportunities.

Now a new laptop distribution program, envisioned by Nicholas Negroponte and other researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expands on that marvelous idea. They've hatched a plan for the "$100 laptop," intended to put computers and Internet access into the hands of millions of school children around the world.

Mr. Negroponte expects his nonprofit foundation, One Laptop Per Child, to start producing the machines by the millions within a year. Eventually, 100 million to 150 million may be produced.

The computers will be affordable enough for mass purchase by developing countries. However, cash-strapped school districts in the United States are almost sure to get in on the bargain. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney already is talking about buying them for all 500,000 middle and high school students in the Bay State.

With the first prototypes set to debut, Mr. Negroponte emphasizes that the machines will not be toys but fully functional computers that access the Internet with wireless, or Wi-Fi, technology. They are built to withstand bumps and bruises, with rugged flash memory substituting for a hard disk drive. Small enough to be carried like a notebook, they can even be recharged with a hand crank in places without electricity.

Let's hope this project succeeds, and spawns similar efforts to make Internet access universally available.

The digital divide remains a major problem in the United States. Children without access to a computer and the Internet at home are at a disadvantage compared to classmates able to tap the Internet's vast resources for homework. Adults without Internet access also are disadvantaged, cut off from a whole new world of information and services.

In developing countries, the gap is wider.

Computer technology can further divide the world into haves and have-nots, or it can bring people together into that lofty goal of a knowledge society.

Universal Internet access is critical, so much so that Mr. Negroponte's foundation should be renamed. Make it: "One Laptop Per Person."

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