26 January 2009

The OLPC versus the mobile phone – a false dichotomy

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OLPC and mobile phone
Katrin Verclas of Mobile Active reports on the ongoing debate over the value of cheap and open laptops for users in developing countries as opposed to mobile phones continues, most recently with a post from Cory Doctorow in the Guardian UK (reported also on Putting People First).

Verclas argues that Doctorow’s distinction between mobiles and laptops, and his insistence that mobile phones will never be laptops, is a false one, and cites Steve Song’s rebuttal to Doctorow.

The idea that Africa needs laptops and not mobiles (or mobiles and not laptops depending on your perspective) is a false dichotomy. Whether it is a laptop using a mobile GPRS Internet connection or a mobile phone running the Opera web browser, there is a steady trend towards applications and services which interoperate seamlessly over mobile networks and the Internet. Some of the most interesting Internet applications and services today such as Twitter integrate very well with mobile phones.

To argue that laptops are a solution as opposed to mobiles reinforces a dichotomy between mobile networks and the Internet that frankly should not exist. Equally, promoting “mobiles for development” as most development agencies have latched on to entrenches mobile operators in their current roles, legitimises them when they should be taken to task for collusion and rent-seeking behaviour.

I think there is a temptation to pick one technology that is going to “save” the developing world but the reality is that there are going to be many solutions. The only thing that we need to be absolutely clear on is that everything should run on the Internet Protocol (IP). The real problem with mobiles is that mobile networks are walled gardens that you have to pay to get in and out of. We don’t put up that nonsense on the Internet. Why should we do so in the mobile world? Cory drives home the point about how frustrating developing an application for a mobile phone can be but throws the baby out with the bathwater. Mobile phones and mobile networks are amazing, we just need to get the operators to move from an economic scarcity model to an abundance model. Sign up millions of users, make it dirt cheap to call, and watch pro-poor services and enterprise emerge. Then it won’t matter if you connect with your shoe-phone or your Beowulf cluster.

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