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Clean water and adequate nutrition are more important than mobile phones and personal computers to many millions in developing countries, but when the basic essentials of healthy living are in place, the problem of the digital divide, the gap between those with access to advanced information technology and those without, remains.
It’s an important issue and price is a key factor. The mobile phone industry trade group, the GSM Association, established more than a year ago that handset cost was the single biggest barrier to the growth of mobile communications in emerging markets.
There have since been a number of initiatives to reduce the cost at the factory gate of the principal components of the digital revolution.
The GSMA itself issued tenders for an ultra low-cost handset in February last year. Motorola of the US won the first order, for 6m handsets at a factory gate price of about $40 each. Motorola has since won a second round of tendering with a sub $30 device.
In the middle of the year, Philips of the Netherlands announced plans for a sub $20 handset to be built in Shanghai, China, with production scheduled for early this year.
And this month, TTPCom of the UK announced a reference design, a fully costed blueprint for a handset it believes can be built for under $20, with the prospect of further price reductions to come.
The TTPCom design uses four chips. Larger scale integration would bring down the chip count and the overall cost. Philips has been talking about less than $5 for the electronics part of its device.
There is no reason to suppose the TTPCom design, which it intends to license to manufacturers or operators will not work as specified. The UK company’s reputation is built on creating intellectual property that other companies can easily incorporate into their own products – a complete GSM system, for example.
Phones in this category are very basic, lacking colour screens, intelligence and advanced gaming facilities but they function perfectly well as communicators. Tony Milbourn, TTPCom’s managing director, points to cultural requirements that have to be accommodated: in some countries, consumers even use their phones as torches.
Personal computers have remained at much the same price levels for some years as advanced hardware and software features have been added at little extra cost. Nicholas Negroponte, however, head of the Media Lab at MIT has demonstrated that a sub $100 personal computer is possible as part of his “One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)” project. Interesting that Negroponte should have chosen the laptop: obviously a portable machine can become a child’s personal possession and taken to and from school, but technically a laptop is harder and more expensive to build than a desktop machine.
There is scope for further price cutting: the prototype uses a modified liquid crystal display but the plan is to move to e-Ink – a paper-like material that provides crisp black and white images at low power levels.
It is said that Steve Jobs, Apple chief executive, offered Mr Negroponte the Macintosh operating system OS X to power the OLPC in a magnanimous gesture that Negroponte rejected on the grounds that OS X is a proprietary operating system while OLPC had to be open source.
In the end, Negroponte settled for a variant of Red Hat Linux. OS X, however, could, if it could have been squeezed on to the OLPC, have formed a link between the world’s cheapest laptops and some of the most expensive.
Mr Jobs is tackling the cost problem by moving Macintosh from the Freescale/IBM Power PC processor to its Intel equivalent. The mathematics is easy. Intel or Intel-like chips power 95 per cent of the world’s PCs.
The economies of scale are huge. Furthermore, Intel is moving to dual core processors – two processing centres on one chip – to provide power without excessive heat.
For the devoted band of Macintosh users, it raises a dilemma that is of no significance to potential users of the Negroponte computer: whether to switch immediately to an Intel Mac or to stick with the tried and tested Power PC variety.
From a practical point of view it seems the ordinary user will see little difference: Apple is promising applications that run several times faster, but testers report a significant but not spectacular increase in speed.
In the end, the dilemma will resolve itself because Mr Jobs intends to turn the entire Mac range over to Intel designed chips. For users in developing countries, however, the dilemma remains.
Is a $20 phone and a $100 computer adequate to keep pace with the developed world’s 3G phones and dual processor powered PCs?
Perhaps these simple devices, however, can provide the catalyst to kick-start IT-mediated growth.
If they do not, the digital divide seems destined to remain, for these countries, a telling handicap.