The $100 un-PC

Entrepreneurs, philanthropists and established computer firms have for the better part of a decade invested millions of dollars to lower the cost of a desktop PC and develop cheaper alternatives. Intel has made its Eduwise laptop; AMD, a Personal Internet Communicator; Microsoft, the FonePlus. MIT computer guru Nicholas Negroponte’s Children’s Machine, now called the XO, is the most publicized recent attempt at converting the poor into computer users. But Negroponte’s idea is to spread computers to the poor, with the help of heavy subsidies from private and public philanthropy. His price is still about $140, too high for India. Indeed India rejected Negroponte’s offer of a million for cost reasons. Jain’s motive is different: he wants to make money.

And he knows India. Despite the country’s rise as an outsourcing hub, PCs are selling slowly—far more slowly than mobile phones or motorbikes—because they are too expensive, too complicated to use and too difficult to maintain. What people have been waiting for, some experts think, is a new approach to computing that boils the essence of Internet access down to its lowest cost—and lowest risk. Jain plans to offer all this in lease deals that include easy-to-use hardware, Internet connection, application software and service—for $10 a month.

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OLPC — Rest in Peace — Part 3

Voltaire’s dictum that the perfect is the enemy of the good is fascinating because of the delicious ambiguity embedded in it. The ambiguity arises from what one identifies as the “perfect” and the “good.” If perfection is by definition unattainable, and the good is defined as an attainable “optimal” (again defined suitably), then it is by definition true that an attempt to obtain an unattainable perfection can be a hindrance to an attainable good. Then the only disagreement remaining pertains to what is considered the “perfect” and what the “good.”

Since the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) proposal is being considered here, we have to have alternate proposals which can be considered in contradistinction to it. I propose, for arguments sake, the “One Blackboard Per School” (OBPS), “One Teacher Per School” (OTPS), and “One Set of Basic Facilities Per School” (OSOBFPS) schemes out of many potential candidates. First, we will consider how they stack up against the OLPC proposition. The next thing we do is to figure out which of the alternates is the one that is “perfect” and which therefore poses the threat to the achievement of the “good.”
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OLPC — Rest in Peace

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is not going to happen in India.

The Human Resources Development (HRD) ministry of the government of India recently decided to just say no to the $100 laptop that Prof Negroponte of MIT Media Lab has been furiously peddling. He wanted the government to buy, oh, about 1,000,000 of those at the modest cost of $100,000,000 and give it to school children. Mind you, noble intentions motivate this: so that no child is left behind and the digital divide is bridged and all the kids will become computer savvy and what not. Continue reading

Formula for Milking the Digital Divide

They don’t really intentionally kill babies just to make more money, do they? They wouldn’t, would they?

Well, I don’t really know.

Infant or baby formula was developed in the developed world when women began to join the work force and did not have the time to breast-feed their babies. What a wonderful great invention it was. Convenience for the mother, and great nutrition for the baby.

Developed as an alternative to breast-feeding, the industry promoted it aggressively in the developed world. On the way back from the hospital after the birth of a baby, the industry gave as a “gift” all that you need to feed the baby formula—the bottles and the bottle bag–and gave just enough “free” formula so that the mother stops lactating because of lack of nursing. Once the mother goes down that formula road, there is no turning back.
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Choosing between WCs and PCs

Conferences can be terribly boring affairs. But for real tedium, you cannot beat a conference on ICT and development. So it was with a great deal of trepidation that I ended up in Bhopal a few days ago to attend one. All I had to look forward to was an endless series of talks on how ICT will totally transform everything and finally deliver the holy grail of development to the billions who are pathetically underdeveloped.
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Mud-wrestling with Pigs

“ICT for Development” seems to be all the rage these days. One cannot turn anywhere without being bombarded with the conventional wisdom that ICT will solve all developmental problems, so much so that people have begun to employ the idiotic shorthand “ICT4D” without so much as a beg-your-pardon.
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Palliatives Considered Dangerous

Recently the Indian Postal Services have started offering a service which can be characterized as “mediated email services.” You write out a message on a piece of paper and bring it to a post office and they will transmit the information to an email address after any required translation. On the return route, they will print out an email and a postman will deliver it to the addressee who does not have direct access to email.

I subscribe to an email list where matters relating to India’s progress down the information highway is discussed. One member, Mr. S.N.Rao, wrote in response to the postal department’s scheme. I find Rao’s comments very pertinent and with his permission I quote him for the record.

I can see that this is a very useful thing to have and that it benefits large numbers of poor people who cannot afford to own computers or learn how to operate them or speak/write English.

That brings me to the frighteningly palliative nature of this kind of solution. It attempts to provide a workaround – causing the real problems to be ignored along the way. I hope I am not the only one to see the striking parallels between this solution and the “good old days” solution to illiteracy where the postman often read out incoming letters to his customers and scribed outgoing mail on their behalf!

The basic problems that need to be solved are

a. Computers and technology are still bewildering and sometimes threatening in their cost and complexity of use. The platform that is used to develop and test software is basically the same as the platform that is used as a home PC…with all the attendant disadvantages of a user interface geared for essentially production/office environments.

There are some products that make sending email simpler by providing a dedicated email station that does nothing else – but that again is a point solution. There is a sorely felt need for a home platform. Sending email/voice/photos via the internet should be at least as easy as turning on the TV and switching between Z-TV and CNN (if not as easy as switching on a light).

b. Local language support is nearly non-existent despite large cumbersome frameworks and customisation options being built into operating systems. As a result it is almost imperative that the user be comfortably familiar with English. Oh! wait – that’s only true for India and a few other countries – in Japan, the computers, UI, keyboards are all in Japanese (I think you might be even able to select between two different scripts – kanji and the more common mix of katagana and hiragana). Now wouldn’t it be nice for the old man in Alleppy if we had a computer with an interface and markings entirely in, for example – Malayalam?

Band-aids, palliatives, patches, workarounds — are dangerous when they mask underlying problems. They work in the short-run and appear to solve the problem but in the long-run, they indirectly contribute to the persistence of the problem. They often address symptoms rather than causes. I am not advocating the abandonment of band-aids. My insistence is on making sure that even as we are busy putting on band-aids, we should spare some time and effort to address underlying causes.

Computers are complex beasts because of the evolutionary pathway they have traveled. Made by techies for techies. For them to be useful for the unwashed masses (such as yours truly), they have to be transformed into easy to manage domesticated animals. Some people are working on that domestication.

The availability of computers for the masses is of course increasingly becoming a necessity. But that is far from sufficient. For us to have a reasonable shot at development, we need to have a literate population. Palliatives that mask that underlying deficiency should be considered dangerous.

God-realization Through Technology

On the launch of the Simputer, a sort of Palm clone meant for the poor, PicoPeta chairman Prof. Vinay said: “Amida allows people to share information, stay connected and bond emotionally. It does these by breaking the fear of technology.”

Damn, now I know what was preventing me from bonding emotionally with people — my fear of technology. Now that Simputer is here, I will get over my fear of technology and bam! I will be bonding emotionally with people. Now I will finally get a life!
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Why Telephones, Radio, and TVs Don’t Make The Conference Circuits

In late February, immediately upon my return from my brief trip to California, I went to attend what is called the Baramati Conference in Baramati. Baramati is a small town in Sharad Pawar’s constituency. The conference was on “Information Kiosks and Sustainability”. I sat through the presentations. After a while it gets mighty boring to hear about ICT-this and ICT-that and all the wonderful things that computers and the internet are going to do for development of poor people. My mind wanders when I get bored. So I sat there wondering what motivates these people who wish to push computers and internet as the solution to all problems. Why?
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