Cory Doctorow is one of my heroes.  A great writer, an outspoken champion of the commons, and someone who is not afraid to be himself in public.  I have relied on his ideas countless times in my own work.  It is therefore a bit of a surprise to see him drop a clanger in the Guardian a couple of days ago.  In his article, Laptops, not mobile phones, are the means to liberate the developing world, he emphasises the difference between mobiles and laptops when we ought to be focusing on their convergence.  He laments the recent downsizing of the OLPC project and defends its aims.  Further he predicts its ultimate success or at least the ultimate success of “laptops for Africa” when he says “I believe that laptop computers will eventually find their way into the hands of practically every child in the developing world.”

He argues this with the best of intentions because he believes that “the world’s poor will derive lasting, meaningful benefit from widespread access to technology and networks”.  I also believe this to be true.  I  fear that the new opportunities, businesses, possibilities that are emerging as a result of being connected are expanding the economic and social gap between the wealthy/connected and the poor/unconnected at any ever expanding rate.  It his insistence on laptops that leads the article astray in two ways 1) on making a big distinction between mobiles and laptops and 2) in underestimating what will be achieved with mobiles.

Mobiles versus Laptops

The idea that Africa needs laptops and not mobiles (or mobiles and not laptops depending on your perspective) is a false dichotomy.  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.  Some of the most interesting Internet applications and services today such as Twitter integrate very well with mobile phones.

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.

Don’t Judge Mobiles By Rich World Standards

I have always tried to have an eat-your-own-dogfood approach to development.  If it doesn’t work for me, why should I expect it to work for anyone else.  In the past, when I’ve read project proposals punting multimedia-based CDROM instruction that was going to transform education in the developing world.  I tested it in my own reality.  A couple of nights spent with one of the best CDROM-based French language instruction multimedia packages convinced me that this wasn’t going to change anyone’s life.

Mobiles, I completely underestimated.  If you come from a world where you have a laptop, a landline phone, instant messaging, etc, the utility of a mobile phone beyond convenience calling when out of the home or office is modest, especially in North America where the uptake of text messaging has been so slow.  It is just easier to use a laptop, wifi, etc.  When mobiles are your only gateway to the networked world….. get ready for innovation and uses you would never have dreamed of.  What else would explain the success of companies like MxIT and services on MxIT like Dr. Math that offers live, text based, math support to students across South Africa on their phones.  Equally who would have predicted the level of social coordination achieved through innovative mobile services like FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi?  Don’t underestimate what people will achieve with a tiny piece of screen real-estate as long as it is connected.

The future is not mobile or laptops.  It’s an unpredictable mash-up of phones, computers, and innovative connectivity solutions.  The single most important thing that needs to happen is to lower the network charges and get mobile phones and networks running over IP so that the networked innovation that we beginning to see in the developing world can really take off.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data