March 20, 2006

Commentary: Gates wants poor to spend $600+, not $100 or $200, for computers

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

I don't make these things up. I just read the news, in this case a Reuters
article
about Bill Gates expressing disdain for $100 stripped-down,
crank-powered laptops running Linux while pushing a Microsoft-sponsored
"ultra-mobile computer" expected to cost between $599 and $999. While I
-- like many others -- have doubts that putting $100 ultra-basic laptops
in poor children's hands will solve the world's problems, I resent
Gates's attitude. I'd like one of the "$100 machines" myself, even if it
costs me $200 or $300.

I've wanted something like this for years: a tiny, simple portable
computer I could use to type stories on the go; something with a larger
screen and a little more oomph than a PDA or fancied-up cell phone, but
smaller (and cheaper) than a full-tilt laptop. Connectivity would be a
must for me, either directly through a built-in wireless or wired
connection or through a cable connected to my cellular phone.

The $100 laptop
specs I've seen
look fine to me; a 500MHz processor and 128MB of
RAM, plus 500MB of flash memory, is more than adequate for writing and
uploading articles and still pictures. I suspect this is all most kids
in most parts of the world would need, too.

Not for the ultra-poor

I am certainly not poor by world standards. I'd just like a simple,
cheap, ultra-portable computer. I suspect that something similar to what
I want would make lots of other non-poor people happy, too, not to
mention that it would bring joy and knowledge to plenty of families that
may be poor by US standards but are considered working-class non-poor
in countries such as Brazil and Vietnam. I agree with some of the
statements in this CNN
piece
about how the poorest of the poor would benefit more from
clean water and even minimal medical care than by having laptop
computers in every child's hands.

There are plenty of people in the world who can scrounge up $100 or $200
for a portable computer but can't afford to spend $600 or $1,000 for one.
These are the people you see riding motor scooters instead of driving
cars in developing countries. Telling them they can't have a cheap
Linux-powered laptop but should have an expensive Microsoft-designed one
is like telling them they can't have scooters but must wait until they
can afford cars -- and, no doubt, cars with air conditioning, automatic
transmissions, plush upholstery, and push-button windows instead of
simple, stripped-down ones.

To Bill Gates the difference between $100 and $600 may be too small to
notice. And to a family living in a mud hut, wondering if they're going
to eat today, a $100 laptop is as distant a dream as a $600 one. But
most of us are somewhere between these two extremes.

"Most of us" includes cab drivers in Mexico City, construction workers
in Dubai, and almost everyone else in the world who manages to earn
enough money to eat and have electricity but doesn't have enough cash
set aside to live without working.

We, not the family in the mud hut, are the market for a super-cheap,
simple laptop. The mud hut family's cousin who moved to the nearest city
and is making a little more than subsistence wage might want one, too.
Ditto not-totally-poor people in their village who own a little store
and sell wireless phone service on the side, who might buy one so they
can rent it to poorer villagers by the hour or minute the same way they
rent phone service now.

A worthwhile but unrealistic goal

One Laptop per
Child
is a great slogan, but I don't think it's a realistic or even
necessary goal. Do we really want kids all over the planet to spend all
their time hunched over keyboards instead of going outdoors? Shouldn't
wise parents of all economic strata encourage their children to play
some sports, help with chores (necessary in poorer households), and
generally have a variety of activities in their lives?

I am not convinced that the current American prosperity pattern of
giving each child a room equipped with a TV and computer is smart. When
a family shares one or two TVs and computers that are in areas
accessible to all family members, it is easy for parents to monitor
TV-viewing and online activities -- and easy for parents to say, "That's
enough screen time for today. Go outside now and let your sister use the
computer."

In parts of the world where incomes are one-fifth or one-tenth of US
levels, not to mention most low-income US households, one computer per
family is a more sensible goal than one computer per child. Not only
that, but since poor families tend to have more bodies jammed into each
square foot of living space than more prosperous ones, a miniature
laptop computer that can be set on a table when in use, and folded up
and stored on a shelf the rest of the time, is more desirable than a
larger one. Bill Gates, who lives with his family in a $97 million mansion,
may not realize how precious space can be when five or more people are
sharing a small apartment
, but the people actually living in
those circumstances sure do.

A computer for the world's working class

The so-called $100 computers shouldn't be given away but need to be sold
as basic, entry-level computers for people all over the world, including
the US, who work too hard for too little money. Maybe they'll really
cost $200 (or even $300) at retail, but that's still a great deal for an
ultra-portable, low-power, wireless-equipped laptop that can
automatically link up with other, similarly equipped computers in its
vicinity and share Internet connectivity with them or work through a
"community" wireless connection.

The only problem with this free-market approach to getting low-cost,
portable computers into the hands of people who need them is that it has
no "save the world" glamor to it. US residents can already buy $300
desktop and $500 laptop computers. It's easy for a prosperous American
or European to say, "Cutting a couple hundred dollars off the price of a
computer is no big deal. Why bother?"

But going free-market instead of relying on government purchases (and
government giveaways) will do something beyond just getting computers
into the hands of people who couldn't otherwise afford them: it will
offer a new business opportunity to small-time entrepreneurs all over
the world. These computers will need to be sold -- possibly on some sort
of e-z payment plan -- and serviced. I suspect that local marketers will
do a better job of selling and maintaining them than a multi-national
do-good group, and when you talk to development officials in a poor
country about creating jobs and businesses, they are going to be a lot
more receptive than if you tell them their government should buy a $100
computer for every underprivileged child in their entire country instead
of spending that money on roads, education, or medical care.

I don't know if the project can be refocused toward people who are a
step or two above the bottom rung of poverty, or even if it should be.
But making the same computers available for private sale would not
necessarily detract from the project's original good intentions. Indeed,
wider distribution for its laptops would increase manufacturing volume,
which would help keep prices down and make the original $100 giveaway
plan more feasible, not to mention the added benefit of freeing the
project from total dependence on government munificence.

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