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section heading icon     overview

This page considers ultra-low price personal computers such as the Simputer, Volkscomputer and MIT Media Lab US$100 laptop.

It covers -

It 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.

section marker icon     introduction

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 divides.

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

I've thought for a while that sending laptops to developing countries is simply the 21st century equivalent of sending bibles to the colonies.

section marker icon     basis

Development of devices such as the HDL for distribution by governments and NGOs, typically on a non-commercial basis, is predicated on -

  • perceptions that there is substantial unmet demand for information technology in the third world and that meeting that demand will produce tangible benefits
  • expectations that costs for production (and, as importantly, for maintenance) of devices can be reduced through economies of scale and "sacrifice of unnecessary features"
  • provision of an interface in the user's native language, often underpinned by text-to-voice software
  • expectations 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 books
  • assumptions that potential users may not have (or wish to acquire) keyboard skills
  • recognition that many users will not have consistent access to affordable electricity networks
  • recognition 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

In 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.

section marker icon     features

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 software.

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 miniaturisation

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 screens

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 the screen)

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.

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