A while ago Negroponte presented a plan on the World Economic Forum to supply everybody in the third world with a 100 dollar laptop. It's a nice idea. Buying components in bulk and not aiming for the latest technology, it should be possible to bring down the cost for a laptop from the 499 dollar laptops of WalMart. It's a nice idea and education is the key to a lot of problems in the developing world, but there are three fundamental problems with this approach.
One is power. Power is unreliable in the Third World or non-existent. Anything in this direction should either run directly on batteries or have a battery life time of two weeks or so. The second problem is bandwidth. Face it, a laptop without an internet connection isn't going to do a whole lot of good these days. And Internet connections in the Third World are very expensive, 3 - 10 times as much as in the US. What good is a 100 dollar laptop if a dial up line will set you back ten times as much per year? In Bangladesh a DSL line will cost you 500 dollar per month and that is the 32kbs version. The third problem is the 100 dollar. If you make 1 or 2 dollar per day, is spending 100 dollar on a laptop for one of your many children the best way to invest the future of your family?
Building a 3rd world cell phone is probably a much better idea. Leave behind the whole fascination in the west with the tiny. Cell phones in poor countries are shared among villages, so they can be bigger. Throw in a larger display and a fuller sized keyboard to enable e-mail and Internet (SMS is very popular in the Third World, with a year ago 250 messages a month on average send per user in the Philippines). Use GPRS for datacommunication, with the most popular services like websearch and email specially optimized for bandwidth use and I think you have a killer package.
And we don't need to give this one away. If somebody puts in the research to design the thing and really, really optimizes for cost, I'm sure there's a Chinese factory somewhere you can build it for around 30 dollars. Share that among 10 villagers and you have a proposal that might make sense for the poor.