Lately, the words have been hitting the fan with a large flap over the value of the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) organization and the laptop that they make. Cory Doctorow wrote a very nicely thought out article on the whole issue. Walrus started with some shots across the bow. OLPC News answered back. Then of course Africano Blanco, Steve Song, and MobileActive added in to the discussion as well.
I find the discussion to be a worthy one. I really love Jon Evan’s points on Walrus as well, with the second one being the most to the point and sadly humorous:
The XO laptop is a piece of crap.
I’m not going to judge the OLPC laptop though. I’ve never used one and I have nothing to do with the project. I have met a number of people who were involved in the project that have nothing but bad, scornful things to say about it now. I’m not sure if these naysayers are all large personalities who felt they weren’t being listened to (and this could easily be the case) or that the OLPC was dead in the water before it even started to rain. Honestly, I think that it could be the best product in the world that all of us wanted and it would still fail. I feel this way because of three things: products such as the relatively cheap CrunchPad, African innovation, and Web 3.0 which I’m officially calling ‘Web Free’ from this point on.
All Things Simpler
I think a problem with the OLPC and the reason that people are wanting to say it will fail, because mobiles are the device of choice in developing nations is because a laptop is too complicated for these regions. No, I’m not saying that people can’t figure one out. That is ludicrous as they’re quite simple when you get down to it. I’m more thinking along the Apple lines that simpler is better. Something along the lines of a CrunchPad is a simple, all-in-one device that is overbuilt as far as durability is concerned. This is what you need. A laptop has too many moving parts and too many points of failure. Sure, you can build to ward off issues that spring up from having a hinged screen and a keyboard, but really, laptops are doomed for failure in demanding elements.
This is one of the reasons everyone turns to the mobile as the “obvious” alternative to the OLPC. We know they’re rugged. They stand up to most anything. When I was in DRC last year, my friend, Cédric could whip out his Nokia N95 and check his email anywhere in Kinshasa, whereas I was offline because the humidity had blown out the LCD on Thinkpad X40; not to mention wifi networks aren’t just floating around Boulevard du 30 Juin like they are in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Needless to say, a mobile is not a laptop. Even my Blackberry Curve 8320 with a full keyboard pales in comparison to even the most basic of laptops. But, with the Nokia N97 or the Apple iPhone, the convergence gets more and more blurry. This is why it will not be strictly a mobile or strictly a laptop that makes information the most available in developing nations, but something in between, which brings me to my next point.
If you see a Dark Continent, then Open your Eyes
The wealth of information about regions like Sub-Saharan African is biased, based upon “l’atrocité du jour”. To say it’s unfair is an understatement. Unjust and disgusting would be more fitting words for how I feel about the general coverage of events in Sub-Saharan African by media in developed nations. This is part of the reason why a project like Ushahidi gets so much attention. They’re Africans (Kenyans for the most part) who are creating an innovation sourced from Africa. It’s also part of the reason I was so happy to see the bus article I wrote about previously.
Africans are incredibly resourceful and when given the opportunity, they create products and tools that work great for where they live. And this is what I see as the main problem of the OLPC in that, from what I gather, while they conduct their needs studies and probably write up those “blessed” white papers, there appear to be no Africans working with them. There are some folks who, based upon name are from South East Asia, but it would have done them well to have real Africans working on the project.
Maybe this was too hard to accomplish or just didn’t cross their minds. Whatever the case, they really short-sheeted themselves on this move. Without having people on the staff who really know what works on the ground, they’re just working in a vacuum. It harks back to my first point and this is just the observations of some dude who doesn’t even live in Sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s quite easy to see what works and what doesn’t. Again, mobiles work. Laptops are hit and miss. When it comes to the internet, mobiles are king, even if that access costs something and is subject to government censorship. It will be a melding of these two that I inevitably predict some Africa man or woman will pop along with someday. And won’t seem like any big thing with a PR campaign around. It will just make sense.
By ‘free’, I don’t mean that the internet is going to be free of charge, but more that it’s going to be free to roam. All our flirts with wifi and “cutting the cord” are going to come in to full fruition over the next 1-2 years. This will ultimately give birth to the next iteration of the web, a Version 3 if you will. I don’t really like the term 3.0 as I never liked the term 2.0 because 2.0 was a gimmick and was really Web 1.5. 2.0 was a maturing of all the initial technologies we created in the late 1990’s, but were impossible to really envision due to bandwidth sucking on very narrow pipes.
Web Free will take everything from the first two generations of the web and make it not only wireless, but mobile, and create a new approach. It’s not my web developing ilk who have brought this about though. It’s the likes of Apple and Nokia creating true mini-computers which, while not able to run Photoshop (yet) allow easy, mobile interaction and the exchange of knowledge, which is cornerstone of the internet.
But, these companies and the marketing people who will glom on to Web Free aren’t the ones who have really brought it about. It’s established markets like the highly unwired Japan and Korean markets and the soon to be developed markets such as Sub-Saharan Africa. I know it seems like a sellout to look at Africa as a “market”, but money (and to a lesser degree, physics) unfortunately makes the world go round and when it comes to creating new wealth through expansion, that means creating a new market base. The web markets of Europe, the Americas, and Asia are mature. There is little way to create new growth in these. You can add to it, but to stand out from the crowd with a product that improves upon what is there is about the only way you can make it. Africa provides something entirely new. This is the reason Google is quite excited about expanding there. There are literally a billion people who have had extremely little exposure to the web. Only 5.3% of the population has been on the web. This is massive. This a place where businesses can expand. This is a place that calls for Web Free.
There is no possible way to open markets based upon current America/European IT ideology though Computers, let alone electricity, and internet, are hard to come on the continent at large. The mobile rules there for information delivery and communication exchange. But, what does a company do? They’re so used to the Web 1.0 and 2.0 models to develop a site. Simple. They go mobile. They deploy for handheld devices which are mobile phones for now and some kind of CrunchPad entity later. They free their sites from the constraints that we’ve all learned to know, love, and hate. It will truly be something new, not just a rehash of ideas.
Most importantly in all of this though is that they will involve Africans. There are so many qualified people there, who know how to solve the obstacles that they run in to with the kind of fresh thinking that Web Free will need. Don’t just grab a fleet of hipsters from the US, send them to Lagos for a week and have them come back ready to “innovate for Africa”. No. The solution will rise from people that are there and for the first time in the history of the internet, this Web Free iteration will be all-inclusive, connecting all the world in a fashion that will approach near equality, or better yet, will have Africa as the leading continent in internet usage due to an explosion of new users.
This is what I hope for. How it will materialize remains to be seen. Whatever the case, Web Free will be a mobile web and to some unknown degree, Sub-Saharan Africa will be part of this. 2009 will be a telling year in all of this.