The stark contrast between two remarkable devices reaches beyond mere dollars and into the realm of technological philosophy.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published January 24, 2007
The iPhone, Apple's latest, freshest product was announced to enormous fanfare on January 9. The cellular phone, which is also a camera, personal digital assistant (PDA), multimedia player (think iPod with video) and wireless communications device (email, the Internet, and text messaging ala the Blackberry) is scheduled to be launched in June.
The phone has generated a ton of buzz among Apple fans (parodied here as fanatically devoted to the company) and among technophiles, geeks and gadget fiends in general.
The iPhone will be hitting the market at about the same as another intriguing device. Called the Children's Machine, it is a laptop designed to be rugged enough to survive in the harsh conditions of the developing world and cheap enough to be owned by the people who live there.
The Children's Machine (I'll just call it the laptop from now on) is the creation of the One Laptop per Child association (OLPC), an American non-profit organization created by faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The goal of the OLPC was to create a durable, energy-efficient and powerful laptop that is cheap enough for the developing world. The laptop had to be easy to use, because many or most of the children using it have no previous experience with high technology.
These goals required bold innovation. All of the extras in modern laptops were stripped out. The laptop has no hard drive (it uses flash memory instead, like a digital camera). In fact, it has no motor-driven moving parts, improving reliability and cutting down on power usage.
It has a cheap LCD display like those used in portable DVD players, and it runs the free, open-source operating system Linux instead of Microsoft Windows or Apple's OS-X. In fact, all of the software on the laptop will be free and open-source.
The laptop has a built-in wireless transmitter for web browsing and email. It is also designed to automatically connect to other nearby laptops, allowing children to sit near each other and chat, trade files and engage in group exercises.
It has support for a wide variety of externally connected devices, including foot-driven cranks for power generation so having electricity in the home or school is optional, not required.
The developers of the laptop report that "[i]n one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home"!
The iPhone is also a remarkable piece of technology, but it's one that comes with many strings attached.
The phone comes loaded with digital rights management (DRM) technology, a scheme supported by mainstream content producers like major music labels and movie producers that is so invasive it has been dubbed digital restrictions management.
It means, for example, that a song downloaded from iTunes, Apple's music store, can only be played on one portable music player, the iPod. If you want to burn the music you purchased onto a CD so you can play it in your car, you'll need to strip the copy-protection mechanisms from it, a time-consuming process that is challenging for most people.
When the iPhone is released, it too will be locked into iTunes. And all the music you download for it from iTunes will only play on Apple hardware, because Apple refuses to license its copy protection mechanisms to other conmpanies.
Apple's goal is to make iTunes the premium channel for every single person who owns an Apple product. They're not selling a product, they're creating a captive audience.
To make matters worse, Americans who purchase the iPhone will be locked into a single cellular carrier, Cingular. (It's uncertain at this point which carrier Apple will choose to serve the Canadian market.)
Apple has branded itself as the home of creative free-thinkers, but this home looks more like a gilded cage.
The contrast between these two products, one built for the world's rich, the other for the world's poor, is as strikingly different as the environments each is designed for.
The iPhone is for subways, gleaming highrise towers, the bustling roaring thoroughfares of Tokyo, New York and Toronto.
The Children's Machine is for dusty plains and frigid steppes, sodden rainforests and ramshackle slums.
Apple has created a device for the individual and dubbed it the iPhone. The One Laptop Per Child association has created a notebook computer for the world that could be dubbed, perhaps, the weBook.
When the Children's Machine becomes available, one thought is that customers in the developed world could buy two machines, with one going to a child in the developing world. Buy one for the price of two, in other words.
If that happens, gadget lovers will have an interesting choice to make this year.
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