December 2, 2005
@ 06:03 PM

James Robertson has a blog post entitled The $100 notebook where he writes

Here's another breathless story on the $100 (actually, looks like it will be $200) notebook. There's some cool things about this, including the fact that it can be powered by a hand crank. However, there are a number of simple problems too -

  • For the truly poor, access to laptops isn't a solution. Access to clean water is way, way higher on the scale
  • Tech support. Ok - you hand out a few hundred in some remote village. What the heck do the new users do when there are problems?

This is a pie in the sky solution, IMHO. It's like deciding to hand out cheap cars, and only later noticing that there are no gas stations for the recipients to use. I understand that the people behind this are well intentioned - but laptops are only useful when there's a hell of a lot of other infrastructure supporting them. The well intentioned folks behind this plan need to aim a lot lower.

Attitudes like this really, really irritate me. The same way that there are rich people and poor people in the United States, there are also parts of Africa that are less well off than others. It isn't all one freaking desert with bony kids surrounded by flies from South Africa to Algeria. For example, in Nigeria there are probably more cell phones per capita in the major cities than in most parts of the United States. The fact that some people get to use the latest iPods and iBooks in the U.S. doesn't mean there aren't homeless bums eating less than three square meals and sleeping on the streets in the same zip codes. Yet I don't see folks like James Robertson posting about how every homeless person has to be housed and every orphan found foster parents before we can enjoy iPods and laptop PCs.

If the plight of people in Africa bothers you so much instead of criticizing those who are making an honest attempt to help with your "armchair quarterbacking" why don't you contribute some of your time & dollars. Put your money where your mouth is.


 

Friday, December 2, 2005 8:55:54 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Thats the typical western attitude. They think Africans do nothing else other than sit around and be hungry.
WYRIWYG
Saturday, December 3, 2005 12:41:43 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Agree on the attitude. The slashdot crowd seem to have several seemingly unshakable fixed ideas that are just wrong.

First, that the developing world is like medieval Europe with uniform low technology: they don't seem to be able to grasp that there is a mixture of high and low tech.

Second, they don't seem to realise that there are degrees of poverty: someone doesn't necessarily have to be literally starving to need help: providing education and opportunity do more good in the long term than just shoving sacks of grain out of planes.

They also seem to have trouble with concepts like "sharing" and "sacrifice". Resources like TV, radio, computer tend to be shared out and handed down amongst extended family: they don't seem to grasp that it's not just going to sit on the shelf of one teenagers bedroom. Nor that even though these things can cost a huge proportion of people's income, they still save up and buy them eventually.

On the other hand, I'm pretty skeptical about the $100 claim, that they can actually make a laptop for that price. Places like Dell and Wal-Mart have a lot of expertise in getting computers made cheaply, and their cheapest models seem to retail about $350: unless they're planning to just add $250 subsidy to everything don't see how they can beat that. Simputer tried a similar exercise and ended up with an unsuccessful $240 PDA.

Also suspect the crank is harder to do in practice. The clockwork radios cost about $60 and the laptop would be more expensive still. I'd get a crank-powered laptop in a heartbeat: the main reason I don't have one is that the battery life seems way too short.
Saturday, December 3, 2005 6:27:30 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
This post makes me incredibly angry. You are a supposedly loyal Microsoft employee, yet you are actively promoting a product which runs Linux and OpenOffice.org. Although it isn't allowed to publicly say so any more, Microsoft's core strength comes directly from its platform and office monopoly. By encouraging alternatives, particularly in developing markets, you are jeapordizing that. But worse, encouraging open source directly conflicts towards the monetization of IP via patents etc. I hope the stockholders force management to make you undergo serious disciplinary action.
Paul Johnstone
Sunday, December 4, 2005 4:01:27 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
while i'm not completely sold on the '$100' laptop idea, i'd agree that the issues the author raised are not the most relevant, and infact not really accurate. like you said, while there are many people for whom technology is certainly not a priority, there are a whole lot who would benefit greatly from access to simple computers and basic technology.
also, i can't help but comment on the paul's thoughts. firstly the posting seemed to me to take issue with the generaliztions about africa, and actually didn't say anything for or against the technology. in addition, how valid is the claim that encouraging open source software in this context cuts into microsofts monopoly? frankly, i don't think that people who would need a 'sub $100' laptop are in the same category of people who would be buying windows or office..
my $0.02
Sunday, December 4, 2005 7:32:14 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Just what IS the point?

Is a $100 laptop really bad for Africans?

If they cannot eat, should they be getting a laptop at all?
Rod Spode
Sunday, December 4, 2005 9:59:34 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
>If they cannot eat, should they be getting a laptop at all?

This is exactly the kind of ignorant statement that irritates me and prompted this post.

Thanks, dumbass.
Monday, December 5, 2005 4:22:27 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Dare,

Hate to say it mate, but calling people 'dumbasses' and being so angry definitely isnt helping whatever cause you are supporting.

I really dont understand why you are so angry towards someone who has what they consider a genuine point of view? Perhaps you need to learn to see things from other peoples points of view a little more yourself before dishing out so much abuse?

Awaiting flame.

Regards,
Kristoffer Sheather.
Kristoffer Sheather
Monday, December 5, 2005 6:25:56 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Kristoffer Sheather,
You're right. Next time I read racist misconceptions about Africans, instead of posting my opinions in my personal weblog I should instead "learn to see things from other peoples points of view".

Thanks for setting me straight. ;)
Monday, December 5, 2005 5:19:51 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Dare,

I have to admit that the headlines about $100 laptops discouraged me from reading the articles. Maybe this solves some key problem? I'd read the article if the headline addressed that.

Unfortunately, other previous highly-publicized experiments with laptops for the masses, such as supplying laptops to American elementary school students and so forth, don't seem to provide the results that are expected for such an investment. So why would that provide some benefit in other countries even with a lower cost to manufacture? Is it as simple as more people with more laptops means better education or opportunity?

I am not against the concept, just wondering what the plan is beyond the gadget factor. And are the governments or U.N. on board for this? If nothing else, your post is motivating me to check out the project.

Thanks!
Monday, December 5, 2005 6:19:46 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Wow. I don't see how Dare could have made this any more clear and yet people in the comments repeating it all over again. When will you people realize that

a)Every person born in Africa or India or Developing country X doesn't spend his/her entire day making just enough to eat. There is a sizeable middle class in each of these countries.

b)Technology is the best and one of the very very few ways OUT of poverty. This is not just a nice thing to say. Look at India - I have friends who grew up in slums, studied to become computer engineers and are now paying for the education of several other poor kids. They were able to do this because of subsidized education in India. If the government had to spend X dollars less on every subsidized computer, they would be able to subsidize the education of that many more kids.

Arghhhh how can you not see this? Get your heads out of your asses people.
Monday, December 5, 2005 6:56:42 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Don't you think that most of the blowback is really just against the continual Media Lab "the internet will save us all" content-free press releases?

Remember the TRS-80 Model 100? A perfectly serviceable laptop, I bet you could build an equivalent version with manually rechargeable batteries for $50 street price, right now. Probably even in small quantities with a browse through the Digi-Key catalog. I bet you could beef it up just enough to run a browser like Lynx for not much more (Heck, what does a low-end Palm go for nowadays? My five or six year old Vx runs a web browser just fine, and I know the modern versions are much more cheaper and capable). The fact that Negroponte waves around some brightly colored mockups and everyone falls all over themselves about how cool this is and how it'll save the world to me just speaks of gullible idiocy.

Yes, cheap universal laptops would be cool, but there are already many products out there that'd be perfectly appropriate for the market that Negroponte claims to have identified. Call me when it ships. Because the Media Lab also has a long history of turning out good demo that isn't really useful, and after a decade or two watching people fall all over themselves when yet another press release gets fawned over it just gets tiresom.

For the record: I've got a nephew in Africa who's working in a town where the lifetime ambition of a family is to own a bicycle. Seriously.
Monday, December 5, 2005 9:07:20 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I don't give a fuck about the goddamn Africans, whether they're in Africa or in America.

Let'em eat dirt and drink piss.

They can't manufacture laptops, and no one should feel compelled to give them any.

I can watch those tear-jerking Christian tv shows imploring us for assistance in feeding the starving African children, and feel NOTHING.

It's an old story. It's boring. And anything we do to help will only delay the inevitable. It's Darwinian evolution in action.
Monday, December 5, 2005 10:18:44 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
There is too much hype surrounding this $100 laptop. Surely people are bound to be disappointed if it does not happen (due to pricing, demand, tech specs). Just like Apple Lisa?

I'm cautiously optimistic.
Monday, December 5, 2005 10:44:40 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Dan I see your point and I agree with you. The whole hullabloo about the Simputer also fizzled out similarly. But finding flaws with the fact that Media Lab/Simputer team/whoever screw up the implementation/distribution or in a well justified skepticism/criticism about a project is very different from "What are they going to do..EAT the Laptops?" kind of shit.

And Bravo Mike, you'd make the trolls at Kuro5hin proud.
Monday, December 5, 2005 11:34:01 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
It's also to my discredit that I don't actually know where in Africa my nephew is, just that his latest dispatch mentioned that goal of a bicycle.

Much of my skepticism goes back to talking with low income folks in the U.S. about learning computers back in the early '90s. I'd tell them to go hit a pawn shop or a yard sale, pick up a C64, and learn how to program in BASIC. I'll bet not a one of them ever did that.

But if you've got "a middle class" that's your potential user base there's a whole lot of computing that'd fit in a shipping container that you could scarf for free or a tax write-off in any major city, and it's cheap-enough to move stuff from continent to continent that way that the U.S. is shipping cast-off clothing to Africa.

This $100 laptop thing is grandstanding, nothing more.
Tuesday, December 6, 2005 6:26:46 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
Affirmative Action run amok at Microsoft...

They they employ krunksters goes along way toward explaining why their software has so many bugs.

I'm selling my remaining stock.

Redmond ain't for you, Homey. Bon voyage back south where you belong.

Way down south, in Dixie.
Thursday, December 8, 2005 9:27:18 AM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)
I am from South Africa, so my "armchair quarterbacking" comes from a dusty soccer field in Africa. I thank MIT and the boys for trying and I am glad they are interested in finding solutions to our problems.

Unfortuanately I think the $100 laptop will have a tiny impact, probably less than the money that was invested in its development would have had if applied directly to sound charities in the region. While it is true Africa is not one big slum (especially in South Africa where there is the best of the 1st world and the worst of the 3rd world) the range of wealth is not a smooth gradient. There are big gaps between the destitute, the poor, the middle class and the wealthy. This applies to the schools and community centers that this laptop might be found in.

The schools I went to had computers and I was fortunate. We were not rich but the capabilities of this laptop would have been next to useless for us in comparison to what we did have. The next level of schooling down from us could not afford a $100 laptop and, more importantly, even when given one would not have the support, skills and long lasting structure to keep it running. They have problems with things like doors on classrooms, glass in windows, chalk for blackboards and even having a classroom at all.

There was no middle-ground between "us and them." No school which needed that laptop and could make use of it.

I am not ungrateful, like I said I am glad people care enough to try. But there seems to be a bit of a gap between what they hope for and what is the reality and how what they have made can advance that reality. The impact will be small, a lot smaller than all the hype and lavish launch campaigns surrounding the laptop.

Then again; I hope I am proven wrong. I hope in a few years time we see these laptops all over Africa improving the lives of many. I'd be happy if I am wrong.
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