A Dot-Com In Every Pot
A third of the world's population doesn't have daily access to safe drinking water. The majority of world's population doesn't have plumbing or electricity. But what is the computer industry's most philanthropic intention? Building cheap Internet terminals to save the planet. Please.
I just returned from a conference where one of the speakers was very high on the advent of "thin clients," basically ultra-cheap (under $200) dumb terminals that connect directly to the Internet and otherwise have minimal capabilities on their own. (Where have I heard that before. Hmm. Can you say "Newton?")
Here's how the spin goes: We are quickly becoming a culture of information haves and have-nots. Those who don't have access to computers, especially access to the Internet, are going to be left further and further behind. So, all we need to do to bring the technological underprivileged into the information elite is make Internet access as cheap as buying a Saturday Night Special.
I don't pretend to speak for the poor and disenfranchised, but I find it hard to believe the number one concern of people living below the poverty line is that they can't get on Yahoo! I find it more than a little sleazy, not to mention insulting to our intelligence, when companies try to gain attention for their products by portraying them as public works.
The reason companies want to build cheap, dumb Internet terminals is simple: to be able to sell the people who buy these things Internet access and to act as their portal to the Web. They want to "filter" what users of Internet terminals see on the Web because they can then sell access to those users to advertisers and select Web sites.
Don't get me wrong--cheap Internet terminals can make Internet access more useful. Imagine a touchscreen with a wireless connection to the Internet that you hang on the refrigerator door. Just write down your grocery list and the screen forwards it to Webvan or some other Internet grocery store. You'll never run out of something you need, and you never have to set foot in Safeway again. Now that's cool. So is getting cheap Internet access into schools, and on to more students' desks, where filtering not only isn't aberrant, it's probably a very good idea.
I could go on and on (and often do). My message to the proponents of cheap Internet access is: Please, develop these products, but please don't pretend it's for the good of mankind. Like most products, it's for the good of your bottom line. You really want to do something altruistic, give 10 percent of your profits to charity.
Imagine how much good, say, Microsoft could do, if it followed this simple guideline.
ANDREW GORE is Macworld's editor in chief. Questions or comments about this column? Or suggestions for future Gorey Details subjects? E-mail 'em to firstname.lastname@example.org.