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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Africa: the Mobiles vs PCs Debate

Paul Currion recently compared Abraham Moslow’s quote, “When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” to an article by Cory Doctorow in the Guardian titled, “Laptops, not mobile phones, are the means to liberate the developing world“.

The basic premise is that we cannot expect great innovation and technological breakthroughs from Africans until computers are ubiquitous in Africa. He states that the mobile phone just doesn’t provide the platform necessary for real programming and hacking to happen. That mobile phones are an interim step, not the final answer. And finally, that IT infiltrates social groups when, and as, they find a personal need for it.

Sierra Leone

Mobiles vs PCs

Cory’s points are valid. All things being equal the best device to get into the hands of kids is a personal computer. Having a full-sized keyboard and monitor are better than trying to program on a mobile phone. There’s nothing to disagree with there.

One of the reasons I have liked the OLPC initiative is because they have forced the door open to low-cost laptops in the developing world. The more computers we get into the hands of kids, the better Africa’s future will be.

However, there’s the reality that I see on the ground as I travel. Sure, there are a few people with access to computers and who are creating applications and services through it for the web, PCs and mobile phones. They generally have a college-level education and are entrepreneurial in nature. A lot of the innovative work being done on the PC is applications for the mobile phone.

So, PC access plus education tend to equal more mobile applications.

The other item that I’m finding more and more of a problem for mobile developers is getting the license to actually get their product to market, much less sell it. If they do, it’s at outrageous rates that the carriers should be ashamed of.

Merging mobile phones, PCs and the web

Here’s an interesting question. What happens as we see the merging of mobile phones, PCs and the web? We’re talking about the “mobile web” more and more, and how smarter devices like the iPhone, Android and Symbian devices let us do almost as much as we can on a PC.

Will full-sized PC computers become less relevant as we simply attach keyboards and/or monitors to the device in our pocket?

That’s a question I’d like to explore more. Are there examples of this type of work happening already in any organized fashion?

[Update: I see that MobileActive and Steve Song have weighed in on this as well.]

11 Comments

  1. Great discussion these days on how technology could help move Africa forward. However, I fear that even mobile technology is out of reach: even here in the US, I am not spending the money on mobile web; in Sub-Saharan Africa, most people have cell phones mainly to receive telephone calls from their overseas relatives, and do not spend a lot on calling plans. Everything is just too expensive for the average African. I truly wish Internet access could become less expensive, then, we could really move forward.

  2. I wasn’t aware of this whole debate going on. Well… I knew that the debate was going on at an academic level, but hadn’t seen shots fired at OLPC specifically. Thanks for drawing my attention to it. It really helped to solidify some of my more general musings on mobiles vs. PC as well as the state of the web in a mobile environment forging the path in out next iteration of the web.

    -miquel

  3. an iPhone buys you 4 OLPCs or 2 EEEpcs. They are aimed at people who have a super, international broadband IP connection. There is no way they will be a big as mobile phones are now.

    What might be big is small handsets, with a browser, become more popular. But only if IP traffic becomes cheaper. (so, not anytime soon)

    Once there are a few million of those, we better get some proper laptops (and guys & girls who know how to handle them) so we can create some nice content.

    Currently, the people who are trying to change the way people communicate on the continent need full blown computer power and a screen that shows wikipedia/sourceforge/bbc (fill in to ones liking) properly.

  4. THERE SHOULD BE NO DEBATE! It is Laptop AND Mobiles. That’s at least, the way I see in Congo.

    The power to make change and develop change comes from the combined computing device and the internet.

    Giving every African child a laptop would be a waste of money useless they are connected to the outside world. Six or eight children connected in a bush hut via wireless is NOT connected. It is the blind leading the blind.

    So how do you provide connectivity? It is through the mobile phone tethered to your laptop. Landlines are very limited to non-existent in most African countries. For example, I have never send a landline in Congo except at the US Embassy. Therefore, you can forget traditional dial-up and broadband. Wireless hotstops are dream, too. Last summer, I was working in a NGO’s office who had a wireless network setup. But I lost the connection everytime someone made a copy or when the generator hiccuped. I have found the only semi-reliable internet connection to be via my mobile phone.

    Although mobile phones are amazing, I do not think they can replace a laptop for most applications. I think we can do a lot more with them if the market supported it. But, most people only there mobiles to talk. Very few use them to their full potential or even think about pushing the envelope with them. I predict you will see more mobile phone development and innovation coming from the developing world (not the developed world). Why? Mobile phones are the only device owned by the poor. It allows communication both voice and data, and some computing.

    Woody
    http://www.EndingExtremePoverty.org

  5. The idea of an “ecosystem” of communication technologies comes to mind; we may want to start thinking more in terms of ecologies of technology.

  6. I think there is a point in trying to get children to be computer litarate, and I think we should treat the internet conections as a complete different subject.

    Regards
    Henry
    http://www.everyyachtcharter.com/

  7. These two technologies will coexist for the forseeable future and each will attract applications best suited to it. I agree that for learning purposes nothing beats the PC just because of the volume of material needed to be absorbed.

    Enowbi
    http://www.bantuvillage.com

  8. Akvo is doing really interesting stuff: Akvo tackles water sanitation using Internet, mobile phones. We’re watching very closely, and hope to work with them in both the development of knowledge resources (our focus) and providing access and a way to give input to these resources, via mobile (Akvo’s innovations).

  9. I’m surprised this “debate” keeps coming up. Just when the dust settles, ever year someone kicks up the dirt again.

    Why is this even a debate? Each medium serves a complementary purpose. There’s no either/or. Meier’s states it beautifully: “ecosystem” of (communication) technologies. They co-exist. Will always co-exist. I don’t want to pull a laptop out of my backpocket just to make a call. And I know from intimate experience that my PDA just can’t multimedia like a ‘puter–even before considering screen size!

    Are the debaters debating just to be talking?

  10. I think that beyond the power of the processor and speed of connection, which will become considerably less different in the future between mobile and computer, what matters most is the size of the screen (and keyboard). For instance, this NYT article reports that a large computer screen increases productivity by about 44% compared to a regular one, so imagine how much compared to a phone’s! Here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/technology/personaltech/15basics.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&em

  11. Personally at the moment I am using one Inveneo (www.inveneo.org) and two Acer Ones (www.acer.com). I began my graduate field studies in Kenya in 2007 with a HTC Wizard and it became half of my brain. I charged it in the rural area I lived with a small 5 Watt solar panel. It worked well in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. The Internet was all but absent in TZ, but Safaricom and Zain both have decent service in Kenya countrywide. I used the HTC Wizard from rural tree farms, to slums in Nairobi and Mombasa to American cities. In community projects I use one ultra low powered Inveneo computer here in the Coast, and four in the Mbambe Telecentre in Western province. The four in Western province are running from one 80 Watt solar panel. The modem technology offered an the services for poor communities is minimal at best. I cannot wait for the fibre optic cables when we will have the power to move beyond VSAT. Low powered technology that can be made to run on solar and is portable in the case of an emergency is the way forward. Living in Kenya through the post election violence taught me the power of being able to pack the equipment and go.

    P.S. I am looking for research funding or any kind. LOL

    Many blessings,

    Crystal
    http://www.voicesofafrica.org

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