Helping Developing Countries with Low-Cost Computers
Over the years there have been numerous attempts to offer low-cost computers to people living in developing countries. Some projects were more successful than others of course.
In 1998, at the International Seminar on Information Technology for Developing Countries, a discussion on how to reduce the digital divide in developing nations was held. After much deliberation, it was decided that in order for a computer to remain useful in a technology-deprived environment, it would have to be energy-efficient, low-cost, and most importantly, very easy to use. Thus, the idea of the
Simputer was conceived.
The Simputer, which is short for Simple, Inexpensive, and Multilingual People’s Computer, featured an easy-to-use interface that was based on sight, sound, and touch. It was designed to facilitate communication in local languages via icon-based IT solutions.
Hardware-wise, it is a simple handheld device that resembles PDAs from companies like Hewlett-Packard and Dell. It is bulky with a large visible screen that was not capacitive but supported stylus use. The Simputer ran on an Intel StrongARM SA-1110 which clocked at 206MHz. This was aided in its functions by 32 megabytes of flash memory and 32 megabytes of RAM. To address the scarcity of power common in rural areas, it was designed to run on AAA batteries in addition to an AC main. These batteries could offer 6 to 8 hours of continuous use.
Out of the box, it ran an iteration of GNU/Linux which was easier on its very basic hardware configuration. Simplicity was a key consideration when designing the Simputer since it was intended for use by semi-literate and illiterate people. In addition to the icon-based interface, Text-to-Speech and handwriting recognition software were included to remove the barriers of illiteracy completely.
Users could now browse the internet, send emails, and audio files even without a basic understanding of computers. The Simputer would have been a success were it not for complications with economies of scale. Even with a large market in India alone, Simputer Trust, the organization tasked with the fulfillment of the device’s realization, found it difficult to raise the funds necessary for the mass production of the handheld computer.
Lacking the ability to manufacture the product themselves and in a bid to reduce the initial price of the Simputer (which would have cost $200 at the time), Simputer Trust availed hardware specifications and licenses online for manufacturers who were interested in mass producing the product. Although a few modifications to the original design were allowed, Simputer Trust maintained a tight leash on the device’s specifications in order to achieve better standardization.
The Simputer found several applications in India’s military and traffic police force and was also used in the automotive industry.
In 2004, chip manufacturer AMD delved into the affordable laptop market with the PIC, a Phoenix that rose from the ashes of Geode’s failed WebPad. Despite sharing the same SoC (System on a Chip), the two devices were fundamentally different with the PIC boasting the better specs.
The PIC ran on an AMD chip with 128MB RAM and 10 gigabytes of storage. In addition to that, it was fitted with four USB 1.1 ports and a keyboard. As powerful as they were at the time, the PIC’s power has been compared to that of Windows-based devices and digital set-top-boxes running on Android.
AMD’s chairman Hector Ruiz had initially intended to get 50 % of the world’s population on the internet by 2015, an admirable feat considering that only 10 % of the world had access to the internet at the time. And although the PIC was neither optimized for low-income environments or harsh conditions, it cost a pretty penny–$185–to buy, which was far beyond the spending margin of people in poor countries.
Processor Negroponte’s “Green Machine”
Bridging the gap in education between developed countries and third world nations requires more imagination than practicality, a notion that MIT Media Lab founder Professor Nicolas Negroponte and his wife Elaine decided to put to the test with the invention of the $100 XO laptop in 2005.
The professor’s visionary plans involved supplying hundreds of millions of children from some of the poorest countries with affordable internet and multimedia-enabled laptops that were designed ruggedly enough to withstand some very harsh environments.
His quest was one that was marked by several previous failed attempts to create a laptop that’s not only affordable but also practical enough to remain useful in an environment that is traditionally devoid of essential amenities like electricity and a working internet connection.
Professor Negroponte’s noble cause was aimed at benefitting millions of children in some of the most impoverished families in six countries first, two of which are in Asia, one Arab nation, one Sub-Saharan nation, and some emerging countries in South America. He planned to produce millions of units by the end of the year 2005, and avail those to governments at a flat rate of $100 for each laptop at a minimum quantity of one million units per country.
The MIT Media Lab founder’s brainchild, nicknamed “the green machine” was first showcased at the UN Summit in Tunis where it elicited a mixture of positive and negative reactions.
The laptop’s sturdy, rugged, and dustproof design was a clear testament of its resilience in harsh environments. It utilized LEDs in place of the usually power-intensive LCD, drastically cutting down the display’s energy consumption.
Under the hood, Negroponte felt that a 500 MHz processor would be sufficient for all the laptop’s applications, be it learning, communication, or entertainment. Flash memory was also used instead of a traditional storage device, which is significantly slower and has too many moving parts to suit this specific application.
Negroponte’s green machines showed their versatility best when put to use. Capable of functioning as a computer, handheld console, electronic book, and even a TV, it put to shame most of the laptops on the market that generally cost four to five times as much. Even without an internet connection, the laptops were capable of sharing a network through mesh networking, a process which allows one laptop with Wi-Fi or 3G connectivity to supply other laptops with an internet connection.
Among his key goals was to remove the dependency on a sole instructor and to introduce peer-to-peer learning that works regardless tongue, syllabus, or even the education program.
When achieved in small-scale proportions, this would create networks where children from the same geographical location could communicate with each other wirelessly even with the scarcity of internet connections weighing heavily on the development of technology in those parts.
As for areas with little to no access to electricity, the green machine proved to be ideal chiefly due to its lack of dependency on electricity. Instead of the conventional charging system, a hand crank was installed to power up its battery, which lasted longer than usual thanks to the laptop’s optimized build. With this only being slightly more advantageous than solar-powered batteries, which suffer from their dependence on the sun, Negroponte’s laptops could very well have been a viable solution for bridging both the digital and educational gap.
The project managed to garner support from some big-name brands such as Google, which aimed to provide search engine functionality.
AMD, which was instrumental in developing the chip, and Rupert Murdock, a global media mogul with a robust network of satellites that enabled the laptops to connect to each other even in the absence of other wireless networks such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.The first batch of these revolutionary laptops was released in February 2007.
It remains to be seen if larger manufacturers ever decide to invest in computer projects for supplying developing nations.