From a communications-saturated vantage point here in North America, sometimes it's easy to forget that the majority of the world's population has never made a telephone call, let alone used the Internet. In many developing countries, the very cost of a computer can amount to more than the average worker's annual salary. In an attempt to surmount the prohibitive cost of this increasingly essential piece of IT hardware, researchers in the developing world have begun to take matters into their own hands by designing low-cost computers that address the particular needs of their nations' more disadvantaged populations.

The Brazilian government recently announced a project that will make stripped-down desktop computers, known as "Popular PCs," available for about $300. Developers were able to save on licensing fees by using free, open-source Linux as the operating system instead of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows. Also using Linux, but moving away from the desktop computer model, engineers in India have designed a hand-held computer that will enable rural populations to benefit from information technology -- even if they don't have the ability to read. Both of these initiatives illustrate the increasingly innovative approaches employed by developing countries to bring their citizens into the digital age.