Mobiles vs Laptops: regulatory, technological and development issues

olpc-articleCory Doctorow has managed to spur a debate with a recent Guardian article (One Laptop Per Child – what went wrong?, 13 Jan 2009). That is a debate regarding the appropriateness (for development goals) of mobile technologies and associated GSM networks), versus the appropriateness of laptops (and associated mesh networks) for furthering socio-economic development goals in less developed parts of the world.

The issues impinging on the debate are regulatory (intellectual property, wave spectrum property, etc.), technological (functionality, usability, etc.), as well as issues relating to the precise level of socio-economic development (network infrastructure, literacy) within the country in question and the availability of  access to information and communication, alternative to mobile technologies and laptops.

many-possIn Many Possibilities… Steve Song emphasizes the faulse dichotomy within the technological debate. The technological convergence appears to be self-evident. Mobile phones are increasingly better able at tackling Internet applications. Additionally, mobile operators are increasingly savvy in their offerings of mobile Internet access, whereby computers (laptop, or otherwise) are enabled to access the Internet through a wireless “cloud”.

The regulatory issues are much  more prominent within the area of mobile communication, and thereby a disadvatage to that technology. Having paid some exorbitant sums of money at 3G spectrum auctions, mobile operators are understandably looking at recovering those expenditures. Mesh networks are obviously not subject to regulatory interferance. But should they ever become pervasive and significant in daily life, I think that the need for regulation will make itself apparent. The Internet, to say the least, is becoming increasingly a controlled and monitored space.

Last but not least, there are the development issues surrounding the adoption of either mesh-networked laptops or Internet enabled mobile technologies. The adoption of technology and the readiness for adoption clearly differ in different countries. Bulking so many places into the convenient “developing countries” heading seems counterproductive. Negroponte proposes a laptop for every child while I am prepared to see children in different countries using latops or mobile phones, as appropriate, in order to learn and grow. Laptops are still uncommon in classroom setting, even in places where people can readily afford them, while mobile phones have been successfully used within classrooms across the developing world e.g. (Meraka Institute – ICT in Education, South Africa). We need to be able to acknowledge that various ICTs would suit the needs and fit the constraints present at different places.

So what are the implications for mobile marketplaces? Internet marketplaces have existed for a long time now, and have changed significantly the trading landscape throughout the world. They have mobilised the “long tail” by providing trading opportunities which did not exist previously, thereby giving value to items which previously had none. The junk in your garage is no longer junk. Someone would invariably point out its value to you by quoting how much you can sell it for. A quote easily determined by a quick search among recent eBay auctions. Internet marketplaces have enabled dynamic price negotiations (auctions). They have also made obvious the contracting problems and the fraudulent activities which are unfortunately an inextricable part of remote, technology-based exchange transactions.  Consequently, adequate regulation and control are a much needed prerequisite for Internet or mobile trade.

I have named the current blog “Mobile Market Design for Development” because in my observation trader in developing countries are very flexible, mobile and on-the-go. It is difficult for me to envisage their use of desktop computer technology and associated ITCs (telephone landlines, LAN cable connections, etc.). That being said, I can see how web technologies can be used as an additional channel for access to the collected market information (See CellBazaar.).


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