At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2005, Nicholas Negroponte, supreme prophet of digital connectivity, revealed a strange tent-like object.

It was designed to change the world and to cost $100. It was a solar-powered laptop.

Millions would be distributed to children in the developing world, bringing them connection, education, enlightenment and freedom of information. The great, the good, the rich and the technocrats nodded in solemn approval.

And then some of them tried to kill it.

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Microsoft, makers of most of the computer software in the world, tried to kill it with words, and Intel, maker of most computer chips, tried to kill it with dirty tricks.

Of course, they don't admit to being attempted murderers. And when I introduce you to Intel's lovely spokesperson, Agnes Kwan, you'll realize how far their denials go.

But the truth is the two mightiest high-tech companies in the world looked upon Negroponte's philanthropic scheme and decided it had to die.

Yet, 3½ years later, the laptop is clinging on to life. It costs around $190 rather than $100 and it is called the XO.

It is no longer like a tent, but it can still be solar-powered. It is a technological triumph. But only 370,000 are in use and another 250,000 ordered.

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), the company formed to run the project, is still driven by the same old idealism, geekery and technical brilliance.

But Negroponte and his young staff are older and wiser. They were stunned by the savagery of the competition they faced — competition plainly intended to destroy a philanthropic idea.

"I had wildly underestimated," says Negroponte, "the degree to which commercial entities will go to disrupt a humanitarian project."

• Click here to read the rest of this story at the Sunday Times.