It's hard to believe, but there is a downside to Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project. Of course, the project's intent -- to distribute millions of $100 laptops to poor kids throughout the world -- is beyond reproach. It's the feel-good project of the year.
The problem has nothing to do with the project's goal. It's technical: Flooding the world with so many identical machines is dangerous. It will create a monoculture, which is a scenario in which a huge number of organisms -- physical or cyber -- are at risk because they share a particular vulnerability. (Biological monoculturalism is a prime reason why European diseases decimated Native American populations.)
In the case of The One Laptop Per Child project, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that the Linux-based machines will link to each other by mesh networking and serve as each other's backup. That means that any problem will proliferate quickly. It's a bit frightening, since there will be so many of these devices floating around that, once compromised, a huge botnet could be formed.
The danger is so high that program sponsors have invited hackers to try to defeat the machines' security before they are released into the field. That's somewhat reassuring. What isn't reassuring is the slim odds that a device whose major design imperative was low price will be able to stand up, over the long haul, to the world of organized cyber crime. Sadly, these crooks won't leave these machines alone because they are the sole link between kids in undeveloped countries and the outside world.
The irony is that laptops are highly liable to monoculture problems while devices also carried around by travelers -- cell phones and smartphones -- are at the other end of the spectrum. The reason is simple: No one company dominates the cell phone operating system business. With the market divided between BlackBerry, Symbian, Linux, Microsoft and others, the odds of a concentration of vulnerabilities is far lower.