Saturday, April 09, 2005

Laptops for poor kids?

Uh oh, Nicholas Negroponte (of MIT's Media Lab, whose audacious plan to use Indian Government funds to run its own version in India was scuttled by Arun Shourie about 12 - 24 months ago) is deeply into development through ICT, again! The Hindu had this AP report about his efforts to get low-priced laptops into the hands of children in the developing countries. Apparently, Dr. Negroponte has made a pitch for this plan in January at the World Economic Forum, and has a few corporate backers: Advanced Micro Devices, Google and News Corp.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with such pious initiatives. The only problem is from a simple fact: what the children in developing countries really need is proper education -- good public (or inexpensive private) schools, teachers, blackboard, and .... hold your nose ... toilets! I certainly wouldn't like our governments to get into such fancy projects because of all the good media they get, and divert scarce resources to them instead of things that would make a real difference -- like schools.

Read the report anyway, and there is some interesting information regarding technology bottlenecks (mostly in the form of display monitor) that need to be tackled in creating a 100 Dollar laptop. There is also a reference to the Simputer, "a $220 hand-held device developed by Indian scientists in 2001 that only last year became available and is not selling well". Four of our colleagues from the Institute were involved in developing the simputer, and their version is being marketed in India under the brand Amida Simputer. While it has some really cool features, I guess in this age of 4000 rupee mobile phones, it would really be difficult to sell a 11000 rupee hand-held device.

Update: looks like the "simputer is a failure" meme has been slash-dotted. This time, the discussion is about this AP story.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Is there a "middle ground", of kids who already have toilets and blackboards in their schools, but can't afford laptops, or some kind of personal computing devices ? I suppose there is.

    Will such a gadget be useful for kids ? Perhaps/Perhaps not.

  2. Abi said...


    I agree that there certainly is some use for all kinds of affordable gadgets; heck, thanks to Chinese imports, we could even get a good water gun for Rs. 200 this Holi for our son.

    My point is only that when there are more pressing necessities, laptops -- even affordable ones -- should not be a priority for the governments of developing countries.

    Given the kind of clout Negroponte has had in India (until Shourie intervened), and given our central and state governments' propensity to spend huge amounts of money on things that have publicity value (e.g., the Science City project in Bangalore at ~600 Crores), my fear that they may fall for Negroponte's idea is not misplaced.

    To get back to your question, who wouldn't want inexpensive laptops? I am sure school kids would love them; just imagine all the games they can play ...

    Further, at 100 Dollars, even I can afford one!

  3. In The Shadows said...

    Why is the simputer a failure -

    1. A product should be quickly marketed, before competition catches up, and make a "reach". A big failure on part of IISc. Now in the intervening 5 years, mobile phones have more processing power.

    2. Product needs to be continuously improved, once it is out in the market. Was that done?

    3. The first two points are not even relevant, if the product hasnt been - marketed well enough - in the first place.

    4. India came up with the Param supercomputer, which was one of the fastest supercomputers in the world at one time. But where is it in the rankings now??

    You need to continuously reinvent, keep improving, keep cutting costs - you just cannot build something and rest, or cut budgets.

    Seems like IISc is just another leftist bureaucracy ridden government organization. Things are generally not successful when done with a socialist/leftist mindset. You are not making a Simputer for social service, you should be doing it to make profits, so that you benefit, and the customer benefits.