Saturday, 31 May 2008

Breaching the digital divide

According to this link, there are approximately 1.4 billion people in the world who regularly use the Internet. That's a staggering number, but it represents less than a quarter of the world's population. As the population recently passed something like 6.6 billion, that leaves some 5.2 billion people who don't have regular access to the Internet. And while some of that number represents people who for their own reasons don't wish to go online, I'm sure that probably the vast majority would welcome Internet access.
Having access to the Internet can be a tremendous boon. Internet access allows you to access a great many learning resources - for instance, you can easily find a tutorial and teach yourself Ruby or Python if you wish. It allows people to set up websites that people from all over the world can access, regardless of geographical location. And there's tremendous potential for business use - for instance, a company that sells craft goods in Kenya can advertise their wares to people in the UK. All in all, access to computers and the Internet can be tremendously empowering, enabling people to develop computer skills that will be of value to employers, as well as get in touch with the wider world, and allowing them to work themselves out of poverty.
There's a number of initiatives that are working to provide people with access to computers, such as OLPC and the recent announcement that Brazillian schoolchildren will be sitting down to a KDE desktop in the near future. One notable point is how much these projects are reliant on free software.
So, I was thinking today: It's great that free software such as that used in Edubuntu or the OLPC is helping children to get online. But what about getting adults online? For one thing, the children benefiting from these projects will be grown up in a few years, and for another there are plenty of people a few years older who lack access to computers or the Internet now. When these people are looking for employment, how are their employers going to get computers? And if they elect to start their own businesses, how will they get a computer? For business purposes, a computer is an invaluable tool - and it's necessary to compete in some areas.
So why doesn't someone start selling some kind of cheap and cheerful desktop PC designed for the third world? Think about it - it doesn't cost much to build a fairly basic PC, you can use older product lines that manufacturers are winding down as these are very cheap, often £15-£20 for a processor, for example. I'm sure it would be easy to build a basic PC without a screen or keyboard for less than £150, probably considerably less. Install a lightweight Linux distribution on it (I'm thinking possibly Xubuntu, or maybe creating a variant using a window manager such as IceWM or Fluxbox for more speed), and you'll get an easy-to-use computer, and access to the free software in the distro's repositories, so people can easily set up web servers, install office software or whatever they need. You could manufacture these in large quantities and sell them in developing countries (or for that matter, there's plenty of people in the first world who would benefit from them). On a larger scale, these could help to bootstrap an entire IT industry into existence in a country within a very short space of time - perhaps we could see a whole host of web startups in the third world.
Such a project has a great deal of merit. The best way to sell them would probably be as a franchise, as it would allow people to set up their own businesses, creating jobs in the process. They'd be ideal for small or even mid-sized businesses. Internet cafes could also use them as they'd be good value for money, allowing them to afford more computers and make more money. And it wouldn't even need to be a charity - I feel this is something which has a sound business model.
I'd be very surprised if this is the first time someone has thought up this idea, but I can't find anything similar online. Probably the closest thing to this that I'm aware of is the gPC, as well as some other projects I've heard of to refurbish old computers and install Linux on them then sell them on. What do you think? Could this be a good way to help breach the digital divide?

9 comments:

Jerome Riña said...

Actually, it's a great way to bridge the digital divide. I sort of share the same vision of the future with you and it's sort of something i'm working on right now. My sort of mini project for this is to be able to get a full functioning computer at around $25 that could surf the internet, play youtube videos or any kind of videos for that matter and also basic word processing. With that kind of money though, the best thing i could get is a pentium 3, which is usually around 1.0ghz...Do you think its enough and do you know what kind of linux distro i should use? Thanks! :-D

MattBD said...

Jerome, I think a Pentium 3 will be more than sufficient as long as you choose a fairly lightweight distro. Xubuntu might be a good choice for an easy to use distro. I'd also recommend Zenwalk. If either of these are too heavy, you could try Puppy Linux, AntiX, or one I've been very enamoured of recently, TinyMe. These are incredibly streamlined distros that will run fast on anything with more memory than a goldfish. All of these are worth a try, and if none of them work out I'd recommend a visit to Distrowatch for other possibilities.
I'd love to know how you get on with this project. Do you have a website about it?

Jerome Riña said...

No not really. I've tried Puppy Linux and to be honest, it's not quite the prettiest distro to run on a computer. Ya, I know it's sort of too much to ask if I wanted a nice looking interface to run on a cheap computer but I sort of wanted something that looks interesting at least so that first time users would be interested at interacting with a computer. I'll decide to play the waiting game and hope that the computers are gonna get cheaper. But i'm definitely going to stick with my budget of $25 for a computer. I don't have a site though but i'm thinking of making one in the future.

MattBD said...

If you wanted a user interface that will be attractive to new users, I'd highly recommend using the Enlightenment 17 window manager. E17 is currently under heavy development, but it's still stable enough for everyday use, but at the same time I believe it will be more than fast enough for the kind of hardware you're planning to use. There's a few distros around that use it - OpenGEU is a particularly striking one.

Jerome Riña said...

i saw some screenshots of OpenGEU then it doesn't seem as attractive as it looks. Then again, maybe if i see it in action then i'd probably have a different view of it. I might need to free up some space first on my hard drive in order to get virtual box running. By the way, have you tried any of the new netbooks?

MattBD said...

You might not need to clear much space to try it in VirtualBox - as OpenGEU is based on Ubuntu, you can run it in live mode off the ISO image without the need to install it to the virtual machine, and you don't even need to set up a virtual hard drive. I do recommend switching OpenGEU to the Moonlight theme, which I prefer. The whole thing does look great when you see it running, and that's hard to get across in the screenshots.
Yes, I have tried the new netbooks - I have an Asus Eee PC 2G Surf and I love it to bits! I'm really finding it a boon for surfing the net in cafes at present.

Jerome Riña said...

it's great to know that you actually enjoy yours. i liked mine as well the first time i used it, in fact i was quite in love with it. but after a while it's flaws were starting to become too much for me especially when i needed to open google reader. maybe you're running a different operating system or you did some modifications so it probably doesn't bother you that much but right now i'm saving up for an msi wind. how were you able to get over the limitations of the asus eee?

MattBD said...

I haven't actually made any changes to it. I do agree with you that using Google Reader can be hard on the small screen, but I've used the mobile version on a PDA so using it on the Eee is luxury by comparison! I have been searching for an alternative distro to use, and TinyMe was the best so far, were it not for the fact that it doesn't support the wireless card! I can boot Linux Mint Daryna (based on Ubuntu Gutsy) on it from a USB pendrive, with Compiz working and everything, but again the wi-fi doesn't work, although I do know of a fix for that in Ubuntu-based distros. The new Mandriva Spring 2008 apparently supports the Asus Eee out of the box, but I doubt that would fit on as I went for the 2GB option. Breeezy (based on Puppy) is supposed to be good too.

Jerome Riña said...

Ah okay...If ever you plan on getting any of the new netbooks, please fill me up on what are the better operating systems that may work on them though it seems that you're still glued to your Asus EEE it's nice to know that your still quite loyal. If ever i get one and it'll probably be more later than earlier i'll try to tinker with it as well. I've got a bunch of linux distros here that i can't just wait to try on the new hardware. Ü