Tuesday, March 23, 2010

An African iPad Part 3: Envisioning the Afrislate

crunchpad This was going to be the article in which I tied together the concepts I had put forward in parts one and two of this series. I would have put to rest a line of thought that started when I realised that the iPad did not need to live up to the hype. I was going to go into some detail about the Android ecosystem that, at least for now, makes it the best platform to be the operating system for an African iPad. I was going to talk about the openness, that would let us modify its internals to suit our uniquely African requirements. I would have envisioned development shops opening up in every computer science students’ dorm room churning out simple yet amazing apps for the thing. I would have enthused about the ability to either download apps from everywhere, or develop a specific library (an app store) of apps targeted at some specialised group such as students, farmers or doctors. I was going to let my imagination fly to imagine a continent wide effective (finally) mobile/online micropayment system driven by the platform.

I was going to celebrate how the Android allowed for multi-tasking, access to the full hardware and allowed for a common file storage space accessible to any apps that needed that access. The fact that you could make it access any and every common tech standard out there from Adobe Flash to JAVA. The fact that you didn’t need to pay any licensing fees to anyone to use it. I was going to declare it a platform limited only by the imagination.

Then I was going to veer over into the hardware story. I would have traced the history of computing hardware in Africa and Nigeria in particular. I would have talked about the whole importation thing. The dumping of used and trashy, toxic hardware in Nigeria. Then I would have talked about Omatek, Zinox, Veda and even Anabel Mobile, as companies that are have transitioned from importation, backroom system assembly to local system factories (no different from the Dells of this world). Hardware businesses focused on a Nigerian device experience. I would have speculated on what it would take them to actually design and build their own tablet systems. I would have then held up the JooJoo which started it’s life as Michael Arrington’s CrunchPad as a demonstration of prototyping a forward thinking device without multimillion dollar R&D. This would have shown that it doesn’t take a lot to put it together – even if initially we would have gone to the Chinese to actually build it. Then I would have looked at the cost component and examined iSuppli’s analysis of how relatively cheaply Apple is building the iPad and argued that we could have brought ours in at costs close to the XO laptop’s.

Finally, I would have rounded up with a summary of recommended specs for the device and a challenge to someone, somewhere to go out and build the dream device. However, there’s no point in writing any of that anymore. You see, someone already went and built the thing.

OK, so it isn’t really the African iPad, but a few days ago, German company called Neophonie unveiled a new product called, wait for it, the WePad.

This device is spec-for-spec better than the iPad. TechCrunch put them side by side:

  WePad iPad
Display 11.6-inch (1,366 x 768 pixels) 9.7-inch (1,024 x 768 pixels)
Processor 1,66 GHz Intel Atom N450 Pineview-M 1,0 GHz Apple A4
Memory 16 GB NAND Flash (optional 32 GB internal + 32 GB SDcard) 16 / 32 / 64 GB
Webcam 1,3 Megapixel None
Ports 2 USB ports, card reader, audio out, SIM card slot, multi pin connector Apple connector for camera or card reader as peripherals
Flash / Adobe AIR Yes / Yes No / No
App Store WePad AppStore + Google Android Marketplace iTunes App Store
Multitasking Yes Restricted, allowed only for Apple apps
Battery life 6 hours 10 hours
eBook format All open standards Proprietary Apple format from iBooks store
Wireless connect Bluetooth 2.1, WiFi N, 3G optional Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, WiFi N, 3G optional
Body Magnesium-Aluminium Aluminium
Size 288 x 190 x 13 mm 242.8 x 189.7 x 13,4 mm
Weight 800 g (850 g with 3G) 680 g

Now there are lots of Android-based tablet devices rumoured and actually under development, and one should not rule out of the utility of the more conventional convertible tablet laptop form factor, but this device embodies what the African iPad really could be. Neophonie created their own custom app store like we should create our own app store while still maintaining links to the Android MarketPlace. They made provision for standard device accessories (USB) like a device for the common man should have. While no pricing has been publically set, it is expected to be significantly cheaper than the the iPad when it launches in April.


The point is, this device, this fabled African iPad, is eminently achievable. The possibilities for an educational and computing renaissance from such a device on the continent are immense. Remember, this is Africa, we leapfrog the bleeding edge of technology. We make commonplace what the more technologically sophisticated societies slowly build up to and have difficulty adapting to. We do not need to hold ourselves to the aged metaphor of keyboard, mouse and window. We can grab the new emerging metaphors that devices like the iPad, Android and Windows Phone 7 Series are, and  reshape them to become what we need right here, in this place, this Africa. Without a doubt, we can and should create… the Afrislate.



Regrettably neither of the pictures are mock-ups of an Afrislate. The top is the CrunchPad prototype from TechCrunch and the bottom is the WePad.