The OLPC versus the Mobile Phone - A False Dichotomy

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Jan 26, 2009

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. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, the most visible and audacious of the low-cost laptop projects, has been in the news recently for cutting half its staff and severely scaling back and refocusing its operations.  OLPC had originally promised to promote economic development by distributing free computers to two billion children in developing countries.

Doctorow in the Guardian argues what we all believe in -- that information technology is an essential ingredient to economic development. He notes:

Poverty and its associated problems – hunger, poor health, lack of education and disenfranchisement – are fundamentally information problems. Poverty is exacerbated by the high cost of discovering how your peers have solved their agricultural problems, of accessing government services, of communicating with distant relations who have gone to the city to earn on behalf of the family. Poverty and oppression thrive in situations where people can't communicate cheaply and widely with one another about corruption, injustice and violence. 

But he then goes on to argue that the mobile phone is only an interim step towards the nirvana of the open laptop. According to Doctorow, mobiles have severe limits in their development potential: 

Adding software to most mobile phones is difficult or impossible without the permission of a central carrier, which makes life very hard for local technologists who have a very particular, local itch that needs scratching (and forget about collectively improving the solutions that do get approved – when was the last time you heard of someone downloading an app for her phone, improving it, and republishing it?). Mobile phone use is always metered, limiting their use and exacting a toll on people who can least afford to pay it. Worst of all, the centralised nature of mobile networks means that in times of extremis, governments and natural disasters will wreak havoc on our systems, just as we need them most.

On the other hand, he argues, an

open laptop with mesh networking is designed to be locally customised, to have its lessons broadcast to others who can use them, and to avoid centralised control and vulnerability to bad weather and bad governments. It is designed to be nearly free from operating costs, so that once the initial investment is made, all subsequent use is free, encouraging experimentation and play, from which all manner of innovations may spring.

This analysis is mis-guided on many levels -- for one, it seems ludicrous to argue in earnest that once the laptop is deployed it is free without operating costs.  Secondly, in a market that is seeing a steep decline in prices with more and more low-cost netbooks powered by open source software coming on the market, the value of a relatively costly non-profit initiative such as the OLPC is highly questionable.  

More importantly, however, is Doctorow's distinction between mobiles and laptops, and his incistence that mobile phones will never be laptops.  This dichotomy is a false one, as Steve Song in his rebuttal to Doctorow points out. Song, a program officer at the South African Shuttleworth Foundation, argues:

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... 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.

Song is right when he says that "the future is not mobile or laptops.  It’s an unpredictable mash-up of phones, computers, and innovative connectivity solutions." With definite trends towards greater openness in the mobile walled garden, it is a matter of time and pressure to achieve lower communication costs, IP-connectivity, open systems and standards, and bottom-up innovations develivered over a variety of devices. Mobile phones are an integral part of the equation because of their prevalence and ease of use for people all over the world.  It is undeniable that there is much work to be done for the potential of mobile phones for social and economic evelopment to be realized, but leaving mobiles out of the universe of networked innovation is foolish.  All Doctorow has to do is look around in every community in the world and he would not, in Steve Song's words, "underestimate what people with achieve with a tiny piece of screen real-estate as long as it's connected." 

Who doesn't understand "MESH" ?

Who thinks that all the OLPC deployment areas have cell phone connectivity? And that they would like to pay the cellular operator? Or do you suggest building a nonprofit cellphone operator which the government funds (like they currently fund OLPC laptops?)

The killer feature of the OLPC is the MESH-NETWORK which works FOR FREE. The kids and teacers will learn to chat, publish webpages. Sooner or later bulletin boards for gossip and classifieds come online. Somebody makes a website on efficient farming and publishes in the MESH-network. This means everybody that is close enough can read that webpage, and they don't even need to pay for internet connectivity! 
Some bright teenager can make a small business out of writing farm-subsidy applications in the internet cafe in town. While at home he has his MESH-NETWORK open for people to hire him. Now the MESH-NETWORK works as long as they can crank up some power for the laptop. The mobile network isn't available everywhere, and is more expensive to use!


It's all right for all you westerners to think that the cellphone would have connectivity all over the developing countries. But the real killer feature of the OLPC is the MESH-NETWORK which works FOR FREE. This means that those kids will learn to make webpages, surf those pages and chat with each other (hopefully though, not while in class). And then some teachers get together and write up a page about efficient farming, and links to a government site where they can apply for farm-subsidies (or whatever). Now the gov. site probably isn't on the MESH-NETWORK, and this is when the mobile phone is needed and somebody needs to pay the internet connection fee. Currently they actually can handle this in internet cafes, or some bright teenager can make a small business out of writing farm-subsidy applications in the internet cafe in town. While at home he has his MESH-NETWORK open for people to hire him. Now the MESH-NETWORK works as long as they can crank up some power for the laptop. The mobile network isn't available everywhere, and is more expensive to use!

It's Mobiles AND Laptops

I can't wait for more mobile coverage in the rural bush of Congo.

To establish an email system at our rural hospital cost us over $8,000 in 2002.  Now, it cost just $100 for an internet-ready mobile.  Under system, we use a laptop.  Clearly, mobile phones are our connection to the outside world.  

Woody M. Collins

"And", not "or"

I've been arguing for at least a year now thatnot only is OLPC vs. Mobile a false dichotomy, but that it's an ideal partnership.  I don't think any sane person really believed that the OLPCs would magically come with free Internet connections through donated satellite connectivity, and yet access to the Internet is a key element to their utility - all the way from their theft prevention tools to educational content delivery.  In March 2008 I wrote about the vast opportunities that an OLPC XO paired with a lowly GPRS modem could present if you look at if from a "Base of the Pyramid" approach: 

In "ICT4D", we all need a big sign in our offices reminding us that the goal is the D - Development - and not ICT.  ICT is merely a tool to improve outcomes, and as Song mentions, when we start picking technologies instead of desired outcomes, we've made a fatal mistake.

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