Monday, August 4, 2008

IBM guru questions computers

[ Johannesburg, 4 August 2008 ] - Mark Dean, one of the inventors of the personal computer (PC), is questioning the relevance of the device in crossing the digital divide.

Dean, currently VP for research at IBM, was instrumental in the recent donation of a Blue Gene supercomputer to the Centre for High Performance Computing, part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's Meraka Institute.

Dean says the debate over low-cost PCs overlooks a “more important question: Is the personal computer the right device for bridging the digital divide?”

“As leader of the engineering team that developed the core technologies still in use in more than 90% of the world's personal computers, I feel confident that the PC age is drawing to a close,” he says.

Connectivity trumps processing power in this new era. The developing world has a unique opportunity to leapfrog previous generations of technology, so why burden it with outdated technology?”

Dean says it is, therefore, not surprising “that the well-meaning efforts of the One Laptop Per Child programme have met with disappointing results. It's pushing the wrong product.”


The numbers back him up. Internet World Stats estimate that only about 44.3 million of Africa's one billion people use the Internet. Although this number represents 882.7% growth since 2000, Africa's Internet penetration as a percentage of the population is still low (4.7%) versus the rest of the world (22%).

Meanwhile, GSM Africa, the African arm of the world GSM Association said in April that Africa's GSM mobile subscriber base was expected to jump to 316 million by year-end. The figure has rocketed in recent years, jumping from 63 million users in 2004 to 152 million in 2006 – and now doubling again.

The Globalist reported earlier this year that mobile phone penetration in the developing world, including Africa, had made “cellphones the first telecommunications technology in history to have more users there than in the developed world”.

In SA, seven out of every 100 South Africans had a cellphone 10 years ago. Today it is eight out of 10.

Cellphone versus PC

Dean concedes that the mobile phone cannot do everything a PC can. But he insists it is “a more reasonable first step into the digital age for developing countries”.

For one thing, he says, it is cheaper: “Even the least expensive laptop on the market cannot compete with a device that retails for $40 or less.

“Mobile phones are more portable, and their extended battery life is suited to regions where access to electricity is lacking or non-existent. And the infrastructure needed to connect wireless devices to the Internet is easier and less expensive to build.”

Dean adds it's important not to impose a Western bias when comparing the relative merits of mobile phones and PCs.

“For example, most African cultures rely on oral communication rather than the written word. And… mobile devices are much more than phones in emerging nations. Digital cash transactions, telemedicine, mobile banking and video are already de rigueur in many regions.”

Dean says mobile phones are evolving, too, increasingly offering many of the aspects of PCs. “We are already seeing emerging technologies coming to mobile phones, including tiny devices that can project images from the cellphone onto a wall, overcoming the small screen sizes, and even devices that enable full-size keyboards, bringing the QWERTY keyboard to the mobile phone.

“Over the past year, I've travelled extensively across sub-Saharan Africa and talked with students, business leaders and government officials as part of IBM's Global Innovation Outlook.

“They all say the path to prosperity is wireless. There is no learning curve, no literacy barrier and no technical-support challenge to overcome when it comes to the mobile phone. There are no costly and burdensome applications to load, maintain and update.

“Programs are called up as needed, and the potential for expansion of the services delivered over mobile devices is limitless,” says Dean.

“So before we exhaust ourselves arguing over which microprocessor the developing world needs to power its laptops, or unloading our outdated PCs on emerging markets, let's carefully consider the right technology for the ambitious effort of bridging the digital divide. The answer may already be in your pocket.”

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