Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An African iPad Part 2: Why We Must Build Our Own

 3031357749_3383ed9146 Children using their XO Laptops

We should build our own iPad. As I said in part 1, Apple’s business model is not in anyway Africa-friendly. It doesn’t have to be, but it does mean that we either do it Apple’s way or we develop our way. We have consistently seen too many “outsiders” come and try to make us do it their way.

Over the years, Africa has been on the receiving end of various schemes to make computing accessible (read “cheap”) to us. These schemes have taken a variety of forms. First there’s the second hand computer approach. Old and disused computers are cleaned up and brought over here and sold for low prices. One of the biggest downsides is that it ended up as a scheme for businesses in developed countries to get rid of their toxic junk and earn tax credits as well as good PR in the process. Then there’s the scheme that looks for low cost components that ends up building a cheap and subpar computer with minimal memory and a retarded operating system. Even Microsoft got in on the act with a version of Windows XP for sale in developing nations.

Nicholas Negroponte and his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project took a different approach. He set out to produce a high-quality, low-cost computer for children in the developing world. What’s interesting about his approach was that rather than looking for a bunch of cheap components, slamming them into a thin plastic casing and dumping Windows 3.1 on the box, his team developed some significant technological advancements in their bid to meet a design goal without compromising on quality. Sure their laptop, named the “XO”, had to compromise on things like storage, memory (which is expandable with USB and SD anyway) and raw processing power, but these “compromises” were made up for with what actually made it into the box.

This device contained technology that made it very readable in bright sunlight. Try that with your MacBook. It could use mains power, could be charged using a hand crank, or even by solar power. It is a convertible tablet device (though not touch-screen) and had extensive battery life. The XO implemented an innovative wireless mesh network technology that boosted connectivity the more computers there were on the network. A whole new operating system interface was developed for this device that focused on the tasks of learning with valuable software delivered by creative minds. Being shock and spill resistant, it could be used by children, those destructive monsters, for up to 5 years and live to tell the tale.

This thing had features in it that high end computers today still don’t have. It spawned competitors like the Intel Classmate PC and had Microsoft trying to figure out how to get Windows on it. Though they didn’t make their target of a hundred dollars per unit, it still came in at under two hundred dollars.

Then the OLPC went and ruined it.

This device is only available by three means. First they made deals with governments and these governments bought and distributed it. I don’t need to say anything about governments and their ability to get things that we want or need into our hands. Second was a scheme where Americans (you know, people with credit cards) could buy two on Amazon.com, one for themselves and one as a gift to a child in a developing nation (and only  once a year at Christmas). The third method? Buy one off someone on eBay. So a high quality device that could change the computing landscape as we know it is made extremely constrained by its distribution model. The OLPC organisation have their reasons for doing this, but it does show that the dreamers of this product are outsiders looking in and trying to define for us how best to get our computing.

Not so the Indians. The “Hole In The Wall” computer project came about from an Indian computer scientist thinking about educating the street kids (think “Slumdog Millionaire”) of India.

Dr. Mitra heads research and development at NIIT, a leading computer software and training company in New Delhi. Just outside his office is a wall that separates his air-conditioned 21st-century office from a slum. Mitra decided to place a high-speed computer in the wall, connect it to the Internet, and watch who, if anyone, might use it. To his delight, curious children were immediately attracted to the strange new machine. "When they said, 'Can we touch it?'" Mitra recalls, "I said, 'It's on your side of the wall.' The rules say whatever is on their side, they can touch, so they touched it."

Within minutes, children figured out how to point and click. By the end of the day they were browsing. "Given access and opportunity," observes O'Connor, "the children quickly taught themselves the rudiments of computer literacy."

One boy in particular, Rajinder, has become a computer whiz and a celebrity in India. "Mainly I go to the Disney site," Rajinder tells FRONTLINE/World, but he also regularly visits news sites and likes to use computer paint tools. His teacher says that Rajinder is a much better student now: "He has become quite bold and expressive. I've got great hopes for this child."

While he didn’t create a new technology, Dr. Mitra did present technology to people who would never have been given the opportunity access to it. His experiment has been replicated in lots of Indian communities improving the quality of education of the affected children. He bridged the divide.

We don’t need to copy Dr. Mitra’s exact experiment, but we do need to copy his method of looking inward to addressing this problem and, in our different African societies, come up with ways to bring technology to our people that results in rapid adoption and a marked increase in applicable education.

One technology that is rapidly becoming ubiquitous across social strata and geographical location is the humble mobile phone. This device has amazing potential. It can and is delivering some of what we need, but its form factor and associated technologies can only go so far. I believe one of the ways get to where we need to be is to borrow a leaf from the OLPC, take the design lessons from the iPad feature set and build our own device. Having said all that, I do not believe we actually have to start from scratch to create an African product that has the design values of the iPad or the XO. The core of any computing product is the operating system and several viable options already exist. One possible operating system option is currently seeing increasing adoption on non-PC form factor devices. This OS is free. Its creators are ready and willing to support its use anywhere we want to put it. We can build any business model we choose around it. One that suits us. It even has Apple running scared.

This operating system is called Android.

To be continued…


Picture courtesy of flickr.com