Monday, November 21

$100 laptop flop?

Everyone at last week's World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia was ripping on the $100 laptop project spearheaded by MIT's Neil Gershenfeld, according to an inside source at the meeting (my girlfriend, who was there for work).

The project would make millions of cheap laptops, which countries like China agree ahead of time to buy en masse to give to schoolchildren. Then this will magically transform their lives. On this, technologists and diplomats agree (from New Scientist):
Nicolas Negroponte [head of MIT's Media Lab] said targeting children would be crucial to bridging the technological divide between the world's richest and poorest countries. "Studies and experience have shown repeatedly that kids take to computers much more readily, not just in the comfort of warm, well-lit rich country living rooms, but also in the slums and remote rural areas of the developing world," he told reporters.

UN Secretary Kofi Annan described the invention as "inspiring" and said it had the potential to change lives in poorer nations. "It holds the promise of major advances in economic and social development," he told reporters.
But my girlfriend says people feel the project has major problems: connectivity, need, and resale value.

Imagine giving these computers to kids. They wind them up, turn them on... and then what. The computers have wireless internet cards built in, but what if there's no internet service where they live? Even here in San Francisco, if a poorer person got such a computer, I think they'd be hard pressed to get on the internet with it. What are they going to do? Buy a $2 coffee everytime they want to get on the internet? Without the internet, they'll only have access to information they create or download from other computers. After talking to Negroponte and checking out a prototype, Ethan Zuckerman wrote:
While Negroponte has some general solutions to the interesting problems around distribution and usage, I got the sense that there hasn’t been as much detailed thinking about the on-the-ground challenges as there has been about the physical and software design of the machine.
Also, the computers are being promoted as educational tools, but it's not clear how useful computers are in education. On if:book, Ben Vershbow says:
it's hard not to laugh at the leaders of the free world bumbling over this day-glo gadget... with barely a word devoted to what educational content will actually go inside, or to how teachers plan to construct lessons around these new toys. In the end, it's going to come down to them. Good teachers, who know computers, may be able to put the laptops to good use. But somehow I'm getting visions of stacks of unused or busted laptops, cast aside like so many neon bricks.
Ethan Zuckerman adds:
Negroponte’s a big believer that students simply need access to technology and can use it to teach each other and to make discoveries themselves.... It’s clear that the strategy behind the device is a trojan horse one - sell the device as an e-book, then see what students are able to do with a flexible, net-connected, programmable tool.
Finally, if you plonk down a piece of valuable hardware like this in an impoverished area, what's to stop a family fallen on hard times from selling their kid's computer? (CNET brought this up in their coverage.)

To top it off, Negroponte couldn't get the computer to work in a demo at WSIS, and Kofi Annan broke the wind-up handle on another, says Ben Vershbow, who watched it on a webcast.

My girlfriend is worried because her organization, Aidworld, is working on their own low-cost, low-power computer for developing countries, and if Negroponte's flops, it could hurt the chances for similar projects. But Aidworld's project is different, first, because they're taking a bottom-up approach and first finding out ahead of time what people would like to use the computers for and trying to fill that niche. So they've made a couple reconnaissance trips to Kenya and Ethiopia. Second, they want to deliver a whole package of computer hardware with internet connectivity and accessibility. So they're building the computer with a satellite modem, so it can be used even where's there's no internet infrastructure, and with software they developed, called Loband, that acts as a proxy and strips off all the images and other formatting on webpages to make them load around 10 times faster. They envision that people could buy these computers to make an internet cafe somewhere where the internet doesn't exist now, allowing people to contact relatives and do business in ways they otherwise couldn't.

I agree with Negroponte that kids are quick to pick up on new technologies. But I think that the approach Aidworld is taking sounds far more sensible.

more analysis:
The Fonly Institute
The Jhai Foundation


Blogger bird said...

To clarify, Aidworld is taking a service led approach dealing with specific needs one at a time. The first need Aidworld wants to address is communication in the estimated 800,000 unconnected villages worldwide. To meet this specific need, Aidworld has conceived an email service to connect rural communities in developing countries. Taking a service led approach it is possible to build a reliable and affordable service. This service will only do text-only email as this enables the complexity, cost and maintenance to be minimised. Other users, such as NGOs or aid workers, may need a different service with Internet capability.

4:07 PM  

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