Monday, June 12, 2006


OLPC: the technology scam of the century?

I have been waiting to see if there are other unbiased minds out there that will stand up and call the bluff. But looks like the marketing juggernaut of Prof. Negroponte is rolling on. I heard from a reliable source that he even made a presentation to the Planning Commission of India to rope them to support his project. But before we proceed, let us get some background material.

The OLPC, or One Laptop Per Child, project was proclaimed by Prof. Negroponte in Davos in 2005, as the ultimate solution to the digital divide that is keeping technology away from the deserving kids in the under-developed world. To the uninitiated, this is the self-same Prof. Negroponte of MIT Media Lab that sold the white elephant by the name of Media Lab Asia a few years ago to the Government of India, that cost the taxpayers upwards of Rs 75 crores, spent in a year with no results to show. Bolstered by the positive experience (positive, from his perspective, since the Media Lab at MIT got a cool few million dollars of Indian tax payer's
money as royalty from the Government of India, in a period were Media Lab was starved of funds from its traditional sources in the US industry), Prof. Negroponte has now gone global. His scheme is as follows: the whiz-kids working with Prof. Negroponte come up with a laptop that includes bright colored boxes, with some crank shaft for powering the machine, and a nice color display, and Linux (or some other open source) as OS, priced at, hold your breath, US$ 100! But there is a string attached. In fact it is so long and large that string is an understatement.

Here is the attachment. The US$ 100 price will be true when volumes touch close to a hundred million. So who will buy the first thousand and at what price. Here is where Prof. Negroponte is creative, and based on his marketing might, bold: he is applying his magic on gullible countries around the world to entrap nations to committing to buy a minimum of one million units, and pay the money in advance. Not only that, he will wait till he accumulates fully paid orders for at least about 10 to 15 million before he will commence production. If you read the assorted items on the web about the status of the hardware, you hear periods ranging from late 2006 to early 2007, for 'first generation' version, and the second generation being planned with future chipsets from AMD as well as future screen technology.

Let us do a simple arithmetic: 1 million units is "the entry ticket" (as proclaimed by Prof. Negroponte), and at the quoted price of US$100, a government has to shell out a cool $100 Million dollars in advance and await shipment.

And if he succeeds in convincing governments of "China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, Thailand, and other countries", and gets orders for about 10 million units, he is sitting on a US$ 1 Billion pile. If it takes a year or two to deliver the machines after the payment is made, the cost per device is already 250$ to the governments.

No mention has been made as to what software will ship with the machine, what applications will be appropriate and useful for the one million children to whom the OLPC are to be given "free of cost" by the said government, how will teachers integrate the presence of such an intrusive device in the school, what content is avaialble in what language and what time frame to justify the introduction of such a machine in the daily life of a student, and a host of other issues, that anyone who is familiar with the environment in the schools of a country like India will easily come up with, after ten minutes of thinking. However, the hype is on the "100-dollar laptop". If I was part of MIT, I will be deeply worried and embarassed by such snake-oil marketing from one of its faculty. Fortunately, I am told that Prof. Negroponte has already left MIT to be full time with the non-profit that he has launched for this effort.

There are so many assumptions, claims and presumptions in this marketing mela that one is hardpressed to select a facet to criticize. That is probably why there are no sceptical voices
out there yet: people are simply dumbstruck by the audacity of the claims.

I certainly need a series of posts to back up my strong criticism. Let me try to separate the factors into two: technical and non-technical.
Technical, not from hardcore technology, but from the point of technology for education, and in particular whether OLPC is the appropirate technology for the intended end result. I will discuss this in susequent posts. In this post, let me hint at the non-technical objections to the OLPC.

Let me start of with the basic assumption: one laptop per child. This assumption comes with so much baggage that it is extremely hard to counter. The assumption that ownership, especially individual ownership, is key, even if the individual in question is a child, is so natural for anyone in the US that it is assumed that it is true for everyone else. The example quoted by Prof. Negroponte in justification for ownership is esecpially striking: ¨Have you ever washed a rented car?¨ Individual ownership of cars was pushed so heavily by car manufacturers in the US in the early twentieth century, so successfully, that ownership of a car is a key element of the American dream. This success has had tremendous negative impact on public transportation, the environment, and the economy of the US. We are now looking at OLPC!

That sharing of resources is a key necssesity of survival in every developing country has been
completely ignored, but it is obviously so
since neither Prof. Negroponte nor any of the whiz kids building the devices have any idea about the ground reality at the countries where they are targeting their design. This is of course not to question the committment and passion of the developers to the cause or their obvious technical brilliance.

Second, if OLPC is so good, why is the target audience entirely in the so called developing world? Is OLPC not good enough for the kids in the US or have we already achieved the aim of providing one lap top per every child in the US?
My suspicion is that so many schools and school districts have burnt their fingers by investing unsuccessfully in computer technology over the past decade that they are extremely wary of such blatant hype and so Prof. Negroponte is focussing on the gullible market.

Third, one million OLPC units is a drop in the ocean for a country like India. The big question then emerges; Which one million children will suddenly become owners of this brigtly colored devices? The glib assumption is that the government of India (if it falls far this trap) is responsible for distributing these units to the children in India. Given the abysml track record of governments in India over the past sixty years in disbursing ANY benfit with any sense of equality and social justice, OLPC will
just add one more explosive into the already
charged atmosphere. Having been an Indian all these years, I can tell you what will happen: US$ 100 Million worth of OLPCs will be in some warehouse while a series of highpower committees decide the complex arithmetic that will decide how these units will be distributed. The arithmetic will have region, language, caste, economic status, monthly income of parents, number of PCs in the household etc., as parmaeters and will require that the beneficiary child produce a set of documents in triplicate attested by the Tashildar before the OLPC is issued. There will also be a state level monitoring committee.... You get the picture. Now what were the OLPCs supposed to do? ... Hmm..., Oh, help the kid shine in school.

I suspect the situation is similar or much worse (for eg. in South Africa) in all the other countries that are the first level target of this marketing juggernaut. More soon...

Disclosure: I have strong reasons to be biased against the MediaLab: The money taken away by the Media Lab Asia project was ten times more than the funding that we were asking the Ministry of ICT for the Simputer project at the same time. The entire pie was given away to the MLA project, depriving funding for the Simputer project at a critical stage.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Alternative for native soldiers: become nawabs!

There is a serious alternative for the much maligned (in this blog) well trained young men and women of India other than being soldiers of Indian or multinational armies. In fact the smartest of them start out as being soldiers, quickly learn the art of war and conquest and very soon set out to establish territories of their own and proclaim themselves as worthy Nawabs or Queens. There are some who are well known and others not so well known. From my perspective in this blog, several of these soldiers turned Nawabs are changing the way ICT impacts our own society. Let me illustrate with the story of QunatumAeon, a Bangalore based
product company.

Quantum has been started and run by Brindavan Balaji and Naveen Mukundan for about ten years now. Both Balaji and Naveen were soldiers turned commanders in an India army (ADS, a company specialising in embedded systems), before deciding to strike out on their own.

Today Aeon directly and positively impacts on the lives of the much talked about common man.

Travel by any of the KSRTC (Karnataka State Road transport corporation) and you will find the conductor using a handheld device to print out a ticket for you. At the end of the day, the conductor uploads the day's data, gets a summary trip sheet and hands over the cash and leaves.

There are two categories of common-man involved in the above scenario: the bus passenger and the bus conductor. For the passenger, there is the novelty of a printed ticket and the confidence that a 'computer' and not the conductor is calculating and issuing a ticket. To understand why this is important, those of us who have not traveled recently in such a bus need some background: Passengers can get on a KSRTC bus at many stages. Depending on the stage and the destination, depending on whether there is any toll bridge/road on the route, depending on the value of the ticket, the conductor has to tear of leaves from several ticket books. For example, for a ticket of Rs. 76, there needs to be a fifty rupee slip, two ten rupee slips, a five rupee slip and a one rupee slip. In addition, if there is toll involved, an additional one rupee slip has to be issued.

If there are five passengers in a group, this has to be repeated five times and a total of 30 individual ticket slips had to be issued. Then the total money to be collected, the change to be given back are to be computed. The smarter ones do it in their head and the others use a small pocket calculator.

All of this is now replaced with a few punches of keys and out comes a single ticket, with all the details printed. Thus the passengers get their ticket quickly. The change for the conductors is much more powerful: all the above complications are removed and the issue of tickets no longer involve fairly complex understanding of routes and tariffs, and manipulation of multiple ticket books, but just a few simple key operations.

Add to this another powerful positive. To keep the conductors honest in terms of issuing the correct tickets and depositing the collection to the corporation, rather than keeping it to themselves, a standard fixture in every bus corporation in India are the traveling bus ticket inspectors, who randomly check passengers to see if they have been issued tickets, but more carefully inspect the ticket slips of the conductor to see if tickets have been issued properly based on the above details. A complex process like the above, even with the best intentions can go wrong and the conductor will then have to deal with the ticket inspector. Now
the complete details are available on the handheld terminal and the ticket inspector is no longer a major factor in the life of the conductor.
At the end of the day, instead of a long process of reconciliation of all the tickets olsd and the money collected, it is a few minutes of upload on to the back end machine, a printed travel sheet with total amount to be deposited, and the conductor is ready to go home. No wonder that the KSRTC is now using about 11,000 ticketing handhelds and is expected to scale up to about 15,000 in the next few months.

For the corporation, the cost savings on just the stationary is expected to pay back the cost of the new technology in one year! And the cost of training a new conductor on the handheld devices is much lower than on traditional methods, since the complexity of the stages and routes and the ticketing required lot of practice and on-the-bus training. A new conductor can be up and ticketing after a two-day training. With such improved efficiencies come long-term benefits to the passengers in terms of improved service at reduced costs and improved travel comforts. A multi-faceted win-win scenario!

Balaji and Naveen had to struggle for several years to make the current situation a reality. Theirs is far from a mega-success story. But their territory is well established, has the respect of the consumers and the competition, and brings to them the satisfaction of taking their technology training directly to the service of thousands of fellow-citizens.

The key to their success is their ability to understand the local market, the requirements, the stringent operating environments, both in terms of technology and human factors and the complex interrelationships and to innovate to meet the requirements.

In India today, there are many such kingdoms waiting to be established! And unlike the kings in the bygone past, the survival and growth of one king need not always have to come from the vanquishing of others. Many kings and nawabs can coexist in the same domain, and in fact, thrive if they cooperate. But that is a different story.

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