Computers and the Developing World

by F.

James Surowiecki recently wrote a piece for the MIT Technology Review on the One Laptop per Child Program (OLPC):

The concept behind the project, which [Nicholas] Negroponte unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, less than two years ago, is as simple as its name: give all children in the developing world laptop computers of their own. If we achieved that, he believes, we could bridge what’s usually termed the “digital divide.” The laptops would offer children everywhere the opportunity to benefit from the Internet and would enable them to work with and learn from each other in new ways.

The computers would be sold, not given away:

the nonprofit [managing the OLPC program] is not going to buy the computers. That, at least for now, is the responsibility of governments, and Negroponte has said that the $100 laptop will not go into production until he has firm commitments from governments to buy at least five million units. Would (or should) any government be willing to lay out the cash? Negroponte answers that question with characteristic bluntness. “Look at the math: even the poorest country spends about $200 per year per child. We’ve estimated what a connected, unlimited-Internet-access $100 laptop will cost to own and run: $30 per year. That has got to be the very best investment you can make. Period.”

I thought about this program as we were driving through southern Kenya to the Masai Mara Nature Reserve. Moving along the floor of the Great Rift Valley, the road would intermittently disappear and we would get an “African massage” as our Land Cruiser rattled and swayed into and out of wheel-barrow sized potholes. On our left and right were long stretches of gassy plains interrupted by acacia trees and loose-skinned Masai cattle. There were few towns on the road, but a little north of a market town called Narok we stopped for a cup of coffee at a curio shop and cafe in the town of Seyabei (I think it was). After drinking our Nescafe and using the bathroom, we started chatting with the shop owners, a man and a woman.

She was healthily plump with dark, rose-undertoned skin and strikingly prominent cheekbones. He was tall—maybe six-foot three—and athletic with a bright smile. Each spoke almost perfect English and they were both friendly, relaxed, and jovial. They asked us why we hadn’t bought anything in their shop and we said we’d already bought enough, which was true. They man invited us to barter. “You have any American music? Eminem?” No, sorry. “How about some nice writing pens?” We didn’t have much of anything to trade with. “That’s OK,” he said, smiling, and then mentioned Barak Obama. “Obama—is he the one?” We said we liked Obama. “George Bush…” the man said, shaking his head. “Yes,” we said. “I read the American Times,” he said. “My cell phone has internet access.”

In Kenya, it didn’t seem that many had computers but a lot have cell phones. There is cell coverage all over the country, even in the Masai Mara. For instance, our guide needed to call his son. While driving along, he would scan the sides of the road for someone using a cell phone. “Ah. Signal,” he would say if he saw someone who was actually using their phone while, say, herding cattle. Then he would pull over and dial. It was shocking how good coverage was, since we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.

The alternative to the OLPC program is to use cell phones (or smart-phones) and after seeing their ubiquity I can understand why Bill Gates, among others, has suggested using cells rather than $100 computers to get developing countries hooked up to Google and the Internet. Here’s Suroweicki again:

critics have charged that as a means of bridging the digital divide, the $100 laptop [that is, the OLPC computer] is simply the wrong technology. The success of the laptop, the argument goes, depends on building an entirely new infrastructure in the developing world, rather than relying on the infrastructure that is already there…. Bill Gates and Craig Mundie…were proffering an alternative to Negroponte’s plan, in the form of an amped-up cellular phone for the developing world…. In July, Mundie unveiled a rough prototype of Microsoft’s phone, called FonePlus, and suggested that it would eventually allow users to read e-mail, run applications like PocketOffice, and surf the Web.

I’m not to jazzed about this specific proposal, which certainly seems like just a self-serving attempt to extend Microsoft’s monopoly into the developing world. It’s not hard to imagine the “FonePlus” as merely another poorly designed Microsoft product (see, e.g., Zune) that would only run Microsoft apps. But the idea of a cell phone may be right, and maybe I’m being too cynical (unlikely).

Let’s say this FonePlus was decent—or that, rather than Microsoft, an innovative technology company designed it (Nokia, HP, Motorola, Apple). Would this solve the same problem as the $100 laptop? This is what Negroponte says about the idea:

“Suggesting that cell phones are an alternative is like saying we can use postage stamps to read textbooks…. Books have a purposeful size, based on how the eye works and the ability to engage peripheral and foveal vision at the same time for browsing. It is not by chance that atlases are bigger than timetables.”

This is true, but Negroponte’s program doesn’t envisage laptops with Internet connectivity, leading to a Hobson’s choice. There is some peer-to-peer networking with the $100 laptop, so kids could exchange information, but without access to Google and the rest of the Internet, the OLPC machines would be frustratingly isolated. So neither solution is first-best. What is (obviously) needed is a $100 (or so) laptop with Internet access.

A we drove from Seyabei on towards Narok and the Mara, I wondered, though, whether this debate may be moot. Just as many parts of the developing world have skipped land-lines and gone straight to cell phones, maybe Kenya can skip DSL and cable-modems and go directly to Wi-Max. Then those OLPC machines can access the power of Google, Wikipedia, and the sum of human knowledge. I hope so, because everyone needs unfettered access to information, and the more the better.

More: Negroponte talks at TED about the OLPC program; the OLPC website; some info on the FonePlus.