By Sarah Lacy A few days back, tech guru John Seely Brown found himself facing the unthinkable: He was caught for 40 hours without his Treo. The former director of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center travels most of the year to board meetings, research projects, and speaking gigs around the world, and he makes it a point never to be separated from the one device that delivers e-mail and houses his address book, calendar, and mobile phone.
"I felt naked," he says. "I hadn't recognized how much this device was integrated into every single thing I do or think about. It was a wake-up call that my life has fundamentally morphed." He contrasts his short-lived crisis with the much more harrowing plight facing millions of people across the world, many of whom lack access to basics such as food, shelter, health care, and jobs -- much less cutting-edge technology.
KEEPING IT SIMPLE. For him, it's a study -- albeit a glaring one -- in what has come to be known as the Digital Divide: the notion that a small slice of the population, mainly from the world's richest nations, has ready access to the latest and greatest in technological innovation while many remain on the other side of that chasm.
He says there's a lot that can be done to bridge the gap. And a host of high-tech giants - from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) to Yahoo! (YHOO) - this week have unveiled plans for doing just that. AMD on Oct. 3 said it will partner with RadioShack (RSH) to bring low-priced computers to the developing world. The device, called the Personal Internet Communicator, was originally developed for markets underserved by the computer industry and is widely available in Mexico, India, Brazil, and the Caribbean.
The idea was to make something simple, durable and reliable. At $300, it's only $100 cheaper than a barebones PC. It can be used for simple PC-like chores, like surfing the Web and checking e-mail. Such simplicity appealed to RadioShack, which sees the device as a way to market to the technophobic.
AMD says it's all part of Chief Executive Hector Ruiz's "50x15" initiative, which aims to get 50% of the world connected to the Internet by 2015. Ruiz, an immigrant from Mexico, says it's by no means charity, but a for-profit venture. AMD donated about 400 of the computers to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, and has seen increasing demand for them in the U.S. "Even our own employees were asking how they could get one for their own homes," says Billy Edwards, AMD's chief innovation officer. The company has sold more than 1,000 of them and will market them in China and Turkey in the coming quarter.
NET EVANGELISTS. AMD is also among companies backing an effort by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to provide underprivileged children around the world with laptops for $100 apiece. Alan Kay, who led the group at Xerox's (XRX) Palo Alto center that invented the first personal computer, is working with MIT on the project and says it's possible thanks to free open-source software and the falling cost of small-sized but high-quality screens.
It's something he and Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT's Media Lab, had discussed several times during their 40-year friendship. And earlier this year, Negroponte just decided he would make it happen.
The first prototype of the low-priced PC will be ready in November, and the hope is that it will be in production next year. Negroponte aims to ship 15 million a year to countries starting with Brazil, Egypt, Thailand, and South Africa. The goal is for kids to have them at school as well as at home, so they can evangelize the Internet to older family members. MIT also is in talks to put them in Massachusetts' public schools.
A GLUT OF BLAME. Bridging the Digital Divide is a big and thorny problem. There's a plethora of reasons why any given country or region has been left out of the Internet revolution, and there's by no means a one-size-fits-all solution.
And just as there's a host of proposed solutions, there's also lots of finger-pointing. Many think it's the job of local governments to make sure children have the necessary equipment to enter the Digital Age.
Some point to technology providers. After all, growth for computers, software, and other consumer-electronic devices is stalling in North America, Western Europe, and more developed, affluent parts of Asia, such as Japan. Real growth will come through reaching the next billion customers, and while it will take a lot of upfront investment and creating new types of affordable products, it's in companies' self-interest.
PAPERLESS LIBRARIES. Motorola (MOT) recently unveiled a new lineup of handsets that are basically cheap knockoffs of its bestsellers, such as the sleek Razr and the Slvr. The new phones should be available at the end of this year and will retail for less than $100 each -- a bargain, with features like messaging, Web browsing, games, and even music on some models.
Computing and calling devices are only part of the efforts. Yahoo and Google (GOOG) are in an arms race to expand the availability of services and information available online. On Oct. 3, Yahoo announced that it would follow Google's lead in indexing books with its own program, the Open Content Alliance.
Yahoo will fund a nonprofit group called the Internet Archive to scan the University of California's entire collection of American literature -- some 18,000 texts. Starting in October, the first of those texts will be available for search and download as PDF files on the Open Content Alliance Web site. In addition to funding the American literature component of the product, Yahoo will also power the search for all text and video that the Internet Archive aggregates for the library on Open Content Alliance site.
LET A MILLION BOOKS BLOOM. The project will do more than just give everyday Internet users full access to some of the world's classic works, says Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. In addition to being available online, the digital books will be included on all of the archive's "Bookmobiles" -- Internet-enabled trucks that print and bind books on demand for the poor and underprivileged.
Kahle says those trucks, which have been deployed as far away as Egypt and Uganda, are just the beginning. Using this print-on-demand technology, "we want every school, and every neighborhood library to be a million-book library," says Kahle.
Unlike Google's comparable Print for Libraries program, this scanned content won't sit on Yahoo's servers, and all search engines will be able to index the Open Content Alliance books. That stifles any chance of giving Yahoo a competitive edge in search. Yahoo hopes the Open Content Alliance will demonstrate its commitment to providing users with helpful services.
ONLINE ONE-UPMANSHIP. The project gives Yahoo an opportunity to show up archrival Google, argues Chris Charron, vice-president at Forrester Research. Google's Print program ruffled feathers of authors and publishers alike by saying it would scan copyrighted texts (see BW Online, 9/22/05, "For Google, Another Stormy Chapter"). Yahoo will stay out of the fray by scanning only out-of-copyright texts in the public domain.
Both Google and Yahoo, says Charron, "need to create a brand that is in sync with [their audience's] broader social motivations...and both are trying to one-up each other across a variety of different segments."
That's just one example of the way Yahoo's and Google's innovation war is benefiting the Net. Closer to home, Google is bidding to equip San Francisco with free, high-speed Internet access via Wi-Fi. It submitted a formal proposal in late September, along with several other companies, for a project estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.
In April, 2005, Google teamed up with wireless startup Feeva to sponsor a Wi-Fi hot zone in San Francisco. The search giant likely has big plans: Analysts expect it might bankroll several Wi-Fi access points around the country, so it can better serve local advertising. If Google knows where a user is sitting while searching for, say, a restaurant, it can better target its advertising -- and charge restaurants within a certain radius a premium for such a qualified lead.
ALWAYS CONNECTED. Efforts like these take aim at a different type of Digital Divide than MIT is focusing on with its $100 laptop. Even the U.S. is playing catch up to places like Korea, where people have laptops or phones that are always connected and where they use the Internet in a totally different way -- to replace newspapers or TV, in many cases.
"With announcements like Google's, we're finally moving into an area where we expect to be always connected to information," says Brown, who recently co-authored a book called The Only Sustainable Edge, about how connected Asia has become. The divide in the U.S. is between people who want that (mostly kids who grew up online) and those scared of it (mostly their parents), he says. "Once you grow up, you have fear and are ashamed and embarrassed. You stop exploring. With the digital world, you have to be willing to link and look and learn, and that's the hardest things for those of us in the older generation," he says.
That's one thing that makes the problem so vexing -- there are so many permutations of the divide. Within the U.S., almost everyone has access to the Internet, via a $300 game console, computer in a library, or a cheap Dell desktop -- but the divide exists all the same. It's not strictly a technology problem, but a social problem.
"It's not all the problem [of business]," says Bruce Gordon, head of the NAACP and former telecom veteran. "It's our problem, too, and we can fix it with leadership. Some of the Digital Divide is self-imposed. A computer and a DSL line don't cost that much anymore. We need to convince more households to buy computers and go online."
The answer - to the extent that there is one -- is likely getting the Internet in the hands of as many young people as possible. That's at the core of many of these programs - particularly MIT's.
CLOSING THE GULF. Young children don't have the same cultural hangups adults do. And just as languages come easily to children, so does technology, experts say. As they get older, a bigger and growing swath of the population will be not only comfortable with the Internet, it will demand an always-on connection with ever-better services and content.
Kay compares it to the invention of books -- it took over 150 years for the full impact of the printing press to take hold, and looking back, there wasn't any one book that did it. Like everything else in the Internet Age, this should be faster - but the Digital Divide is nevertheless vast, and it won't be bridged overnight.
With Burt Helm, Arik Hesseldahl, Cliff Edwards, Steve Rosenbush, and Ben Elgin
Lacy is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Silicon Valley