Over dinner on a spring night in 2000, Hector de Jesus Ruiz, the new chief executive of Advanced Micro Devices, popped an unexpected question...

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WASHINGTON — Over dinner on a spring night in 2000, Hector de Jesus Ruiz, the new chief executive of Advanced Micro Devices, popped an unexpected question to one of his deputies: “Have you ever made a difference in your life?”

As Gino Giannotti pondered, Ruiz suggested that for inspiration he visit Piedras Negras, the Mexican town near the Rio Grande where Ruiz grew up. Ruiz’s mother would show him around.

In an odyssey that he says changed his life, Giannotti helped build a computer lab in the grade school that Ruiz attended as a child. Now, Giannotti and Ruiz are aiming to make a difference on a much grander scale and put computers in the hands of millions of people in developing countries who have not been able to afford them.

AMD, known mostly as a computer-chip maker perennially in the shadow of giant Intel, recently unveiled a pared-down personal computer that costs roughly $200 in an ambitious drive to get computers with Internet access into the hands of 50 percent of the world’s population by 2015.

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Trying to bridge the digital divide with low-cost computers is neither a new idea nor one that has been particularly successful.

A handheld machine developed in India called Simputer is attracting only a fraction of the users its makers expected. A group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on creating laptops that would be bought by governments for $100 apiece and given to needy residents, but some analysts question the initiative’s viability.

AMD’s strategy targets the hundreds of millions of people who earn $5,000 to $10,000 per year. To reach them, the company is challenging the traditional way personal computers are designed and distributed.

Rather than a stand-alone item that users customize with separately purchased software and other features, AMD’s Personal Internet Communicator (PIC) is a sealed box, sold through Internet providers in much the same way that cellphones are sold by wireless companies.

“You cannot sell a cellular phone without service,” said Enrique Camacho, who heads broadband operations in the Caribbean for Internet provider Cable & Wireless. “Increasingly, you cannot consider a computer without Internet access.”

Roughly the size of a thick, hardcover book, the computer is preloaded with the same Microsoft operating system that powers many handheld organizers. It includes programs for Web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, word processing and spreadsheet calculations.

It has connections to allow a monitor, a printer, and either dial-up or high-speed Internet access. But most popular software programs cannot be added, and the operating system does not support games.

The device’s limitations are designed to keep its cost down and make virus and worm attacks less likely.

AMD officials declined to disclose how many of the machines have been sold since their debut late last year, saying only that the number is in the thousands.

Giannotti said there are PICs running in orphanages in Africa as well as in homes in South America and India.

Whereas he doubts the MIT program can profitably produce a laptop for $100 over time, Reynolds calls the PIC program “a real business model.”

Reynolds said that one challenge will be that users may quickly outgrow the machines. “But that may be half the plan,” he said.