Monday, November 1, 2010

One laptop per child...but what "laptop"?

Most enterprises today could not operate anymore without the use of IT. Imagine an accountant without spreadsheet, or an airline company without a reservation system, or a bank without ATMs, or a retail store without cash registers. Enterprises are using IT to automate their business processes like accounting, sales management, procurement, supply chain management, etc. by using professional software (called business applications) to manage their business.

Business applications have been developed in the last 30 years since the PC became available. They have been designed for the traditional PC. Enterprise’s employees need a PC to access and use those business applications.

But the PC has evolved dramatically since the first bulky desktop PC announced by IBM in 1981. Over the years, technology miniaturization allowed for smaller PCs and the laptop (that you can hold on your laps) became more in use. It was possible due to the flat screen LCD technology, replacing the TV like screen. By attaching the flat screen to the keyboard, you had a more portable PC. All these PCs are not really mobile. They need power connection as the battery lifetime is short (a few hours) and would not allow for a day of work without reloading the battery. In addition they are heavy (more than 5-6 lbs) and big in size not making it easy to carry them with you.

In parallel to the PC evolution, GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), the second generation mobile technology which could carry data as well as voice traffic was developed in the early nineties. In 1992, the first GSM phone, the Nokia 1011 was launched. Over the years mobile phones' sizes got smaller and more portable.

As network bandwidth increased and technology evolved, smart phones like the Blackberry appeared that were offering more advanced computing capability. They where like a hand-held computer integrated with a mobile phone capable of running software applications.

Basically there is a convergence between PCs getting more mobile and mobile phones becoming more like a PC. In 2007 Apple announced the iPhone. It was really the first complete integration between both a mobile phone and a PC platform that was internet and multi-media enabled. The iPad tablet was the next device announced by Apple in that new category of devices called Mobile Internet Devices (MID).

The old business applications designed for the PC need to be redesigned to be used on those MIDs. It is probably easier and better to develop new applications designed directly for mobile devices. Already more than 300,000 such mobile applications have been developed for the iPhone/iPad. Those mobile applications are not really running on the device itself, but rather somewhere in a cloud data center accessed via Internet (see my posting of October 27, 2010). Broadband internet connection makes it possible for those devices to access and exchange data with sophisticated applications running in the cloud. This new paradigm is called cloud computing, a new delivery model for IT as a service.

An IBM survey (2,000 information-technology professionals in 87 countries) found that more than half believe that within the next five years, more developers will be working on mobile applications and cloud-based architecture than traditional computing platforms for enterprise. Ninety-one percent of IT professionals surveyed said cloud computing will overtake on-premise computing as the main way that businesses access data within the next five years. “The cell phone is no longer a gadget – it’s what IT is going to become.” said Jim Corgel, an IBM general manager of independent software vendors and developer relations.

In a future posting I will explain what mobile application really means, the potential of those applications and the requirements for them to succeed in emerging markets like Africa.

For now I want to stay focused on the new mobile internet devices. These new mobile devices will become the user access devices of choice in the next 5 years. Already today one in three devices is a smartphone, a MID, or a Netbook. These new devices that bring Internet access to mobile phones will help Africa bypass the need for computers when linking into networks to access applications. Africans are turning their late adoption of technology to their advantage by leapfrogging landlines and personal computers to mobile phones.

It is therefore important that schools in Africa that want to develop ICT awareness with their young students use these new mobile internet devices. In doing so, the children will get familiar with this new category of devices that will be in use by the majority of people in Africa in the coming years. They will experience mobile access to information and better understand the new innovations that such a mobility makes possible.

This should also benefits the schools as these devices are much less expansive than the traditional PCs. A traditional laptop PC still costs around 500-800 USD. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) PC's price is 100USD. It is really more a Netbook than a laptop because of its small size, its light weight and its 12 hours battery life.

Child using the OLPC Laptop at Kigali's airport where wireless Internet access is free
This OLPC PC in my opinion is one of the most admirable technical achievement when you look at all the technical challenges they addressed, not speaking about the "political" challenges. But even more, the OLPC team didn't rest on their laurels, and they are preparing a new tablet MID. Their XO-3 "crazy-thin tablet" will be priced at just 75USD!

The new OLPC XO-3 tablet

iPod touches, a portable device that can access Internet using wireless connection are now available for a starting price of 140USD.
At the Culbreth middle school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, students can carry iPod touches throughout their school day. They are allowed to bring their iPod touches from home and use these during the day as long as each student and parent(s) agrees to adhere to the restrictions explained in the use agreement. Students who do not bring an iPod touch can use iPods provided by the school for free. Those iPods can not be taken back home but are assigned to individual students and used throughout the school day. Students can then use these iPods from anywhere in the school and access Internet using a wireless network. They can use them to search for information relevant to their courses or to use applications performing the tasks required by their class assignments. The school is basically teaching them to become "mobile knowledge workers" that are capable of finding information needed to perform their tasks. But more than that, they can also collaborate with their friends students through the social networks available on the web.

So in addition to providing children with the next generation information access mobile devices, the school's cost can be dramatically reduced by using those versus expensive older laptops or they can serve more children for the same cost. Obviously, in Africa schools should still accept donations of the older laptops when offered, nothing beats free! It is certainly better than no PC at all.

See you later aligator....


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Jeremy Miller said...
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