& the GII
This page considers ultra-low price personal computers
such as the Simputer, Volkscomputer and MIT Media Lab
It covers -
complements broader discussion elsewhere on this site
regarding network devices
and digital divides.
The following pages consider specific devices in more
detail, explore issues of usability and appropriateness,
and highlight studies.
The past decade has seen a succession of announcements
about the development of ultra-low cost computers for
personal or community use in bridging third world digital
Those devices - which include the Brazilian Volkscomputer,
Indian Simputer, Sri Lankan VillagePDA and US Hundred
Dollar Laptop (HDL) - have gained media attention and
featured in events such as meetings of the World Summit
on the Information Society (WSIS)
but have not been adopted on a large scale by the urban
or regional poor.
Arguably they are more of a media phenomenon than an effective
response to complex economic, infrastructure and cultural
problems. Their marketing and uptake offers insights about
the nature of 'appropriate technology' and the politics
of ICT, including perceptions of a North-South Divide,
autarchic development, aid donor-recipient relationships
and the sanctity of free software.
The announcements have added lustre to the reputation
of institutions and individuals. However, as a mechanism
for increasing human capacity in much of the third world
they are arguably less effective than unexciting measures
such as funding teacher salaries, student scholarships
and print textbooks.
They have provoked responses such as a call for a global
'One Glass of Milk Per Child Per Day Project' rather than
the 'One Laptop Per Child Project', although neither project
should be exclusive.
They have also provoked criticism such as Guido van Rossum's
2008 comment on the OLPC that
thought for a while that sending laptops to developing
countries is simply the 21st century equivalent of sending
bibles to the colonies.
Development of devices such as the HDL for distribution
by governments and NGOs, typically on a non-commercial
basis, is predicated on -
that there is substantial unmet demand for information
technology in the third world and that meeting that
demand will produce tangible benefits
that costs for production (and, as importantly, for
maintenance) of devices can be reduced through economies
of scale and "sacrifice of unnecessary features"
of an interface in the user's native language, often
underpinned by text-to-voice software
that devices will be used for surfing the web, dealing
with email, creating basic correspondence or other text
such as school assignments and even housing electronic
that potential users may not have (or wish to acquire)
that many users will not have consistent access to affordable
that connectivity in many locations may not always involve
a landline, eg that a device may go online via a wireless
connection or through an infrared link to another device
that is on the POTS
practice there is disagreement about whether governments
and NGOs should aim for distribution to individual recipients
(eg suggestions that a HDL would be provided to each schoolchild),
shared among a group of families/businesses or located
in a community centre.
That disagreement is reflected in questions about the
size of the device, its linkage to ancillaries and even
the nature of its memory. Some schemes for example assume
that individuals or families might store their data on
a smartcard for use in a device that is permanently located
in a communal facility or is passed from one person/family
to another on the basis of need.
There is also disagreement about what is essential and
what is merely desirable.
Some schemes have sought to contain costs by ruthlessly
stripping out features. Others, such as the Simputer,
have sought to develop what a proponent characterised
as "a real computer", with the result that the
device might be more at home among the digerati of San
Francisco and a global taskforce on digital divides rather
than in a Cambodian paddy field or in one of the nastier
parts of the Sahel.
Devices accordingly often have the following characteristics
cheapness - so that they can be afforded by individual purchasers
or acquired by NGOs and third world governments for large-scale
distribution to community centres and agencies. The typical
price target is at or under US$100, a figure that is essentially
arbitrary and does not appear to relate to the average
income of people in many states. That target generally
precludes commercial operating systems and applications,
with most projects accordingly emphasising open source
portability - so that can be readily distributed (significant in states
where getting commodities to villages in remote areas
can be expensive) and shared. 'Portability' encompasses
size and weight: proponents of the HDL for example have
claimed that carrying a PDA or small laptop will be healthier
for children than lugging heavy textbooks. Sceptics have
commented that in some circumstances 'large and heavy'
is harder to steal and may indeed gain more respect among
some recipients who do not share technophile values about
low memory - most schemes dispense with a hard drive
as too expensive, bulky and unnecessary. Information will
instead be held in media such as smartcards or - more
dubiously - stored on and accessed from an online repository.
Proponents of some schemes elide such questions, with
vague references to USB or wireless connections to communal
hard drives and CD ROM burners.
mail and text processing - the ability
to send/receive email
and to read/write standalone documents. Some proponents
envisage that children will use a device rather than paper
in composing school assignments. Others envisage that
farmers, professionals, officials, small retailers and
manufacturers would use calculators and other non-text
tools on the the device
autonomous power- variously in the form of disposable
or rechargeable batteries, cranks (wind-up power) or stylus
power, or photoelectric cells to offset the unavailability
(powerlines are not present or supply is unreliable) or
high price of mains electricity
wireless connectivity - whether directly to the net or
indirectly via other devices. Some schemes feature one
or more USB connections. Some feature facilities such
as a GPS receiver. Critics, as noted on the following
page, have sometimes asked whether it would be more efficacious
to simply issue mobile phones.
a touch screen - a 'virtual keyboard'
on a touch screen or even handwriting recognition as a
mechanism for increasing robustness, encouraging uptake
by those unfamiliar with keyboards or driving responses
through simple prompts. There has been surprisingly little
comment on accessibility
issues, particular in relation to PDA devices with small
text-to-voice capacity - a feature that
seems to reflect both funkiness and an assessment of value
for users who prefer to listen rather than read (eg because
they are illiterate or because they have difficulty seeing
robustness - of particular importance
as maintenance might be expensive or might simply not
be readily available. It is assumed that the elimination
of keyboards and hard drives would reduce damage through
devices being dropped, attacked by insects (for example
beetles attracted by the screen) or used in dusty/humid
environments. Some observers have expressed concern about
servicing the devices; others have worried that although
the chip may remain inviolate touch screens are likely
to abrade in much of Africa or Asia.