Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cell phones versus i-Pads: Problems looking for Solutions?

In a thought provoking column in this Sunday’s New York Times, The Triumph of the Ordinary Cellphone, Anand Giridharadas, discusses whether the US has thought about high tech correctly when it comes to meeting the needs of a majority of the world’s citizens not jus the most affluent.

Americans went gaga last weekend with the iPad’s release. But even as hundreds of thousands here unwrap their iPads, another future entirely may be unfolding overseas on the cellphone. “Forgotten in the American tumult is a global flowering of innovation on the simple cellphone. From Brazil to India to South Korea and even Afghanistan, people are seeking work via text message; borrowing and lending money and receiving salaries on cellphones; employing their phones variously as flashlights, televisions and radios.”

Giridharadas makes a number of key points:

In developing countries the innovative ideas come from perfecting the cell phone to do more useful things for ordinary people–for example:

•Two organizations — Babajob, in Bangalore, India, and Souktel, in the Palestinian territories in Israel — offer job-hunting services via text message. Souktel allows users without Internet access or fancy phones to register by sending a series of text messages with information about themselves. A user who texts in “match me” will receive a listing of suitable jobs, including phone numbers to dial.
•In Africa, the cellphone is giving birth to a new paradigm in money. Plastic cards have become the reigning instruments of payment in the West, but projects like PesaPal and M-Pesa in Kenya are working to make the cellphone the hub of personal finance. M-Pesa lets you convert cash into cellphone money at your local grocer, and this money can instantly be wired to anyone with a phone.
Innovative companies are also able to build business models that allow larger numbers of people to share in the innovations while still preserving favorable profit margins:

In India, Reliance Communications sells handsets for less than $25, with 1-cent-a-minute phone calls across India and 1-cent text messages and no monthly charge — while earning fat profits. Compare that with iPad buyers in the United States, who pay $499 for the basic version, who might also have a $1,000-plus computer and a $100-plus smartphone, and who could pay $100 or more each month to connect these many devices to the ether.

Has the US taken the wrong road when it comes to truly developing the next generation of technology’s potential? ‘Ken Banks, a British entrepreneur who works in Africa and developed FrontlineSMS, a text-messaging service for aid groups, thinks so: “There’s often a tendency in the West to approach things the wrong way round, so we end up with solutions looking for a problem, or we build things just because we can.”

Does this type of backwards thinking also apply in education? I think so. Let’s just take one example, we have numerous free courses on the world wide web and amazing amount of other educational resources that are looking for users. But rather than figuring out whether these thousands if not millions of resources produced by organizations like NASA, the Library of Congress and Museums around the world have value and for whom – for profit companies continue to sell to schools entire courses that arguably keep reinventing the wheel. We are so busy innovating all the time we dont get a chance to stop often enough concerning whom are we innovating for and with what result. The result shiny new objects and software with brightly colored interactive features owned by fewer and fewer people, rather than less shiny and more useful objects and software owned by more people. You choose.

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