MIT Media Lab guru Nicholas Negroponte has been grabbing the headlines recently with his One Laptop Per Child project. The aim is to create a cheap — about $100 — and robust laptop for use in the developing world. Negroponte is adamant that ownership of the device is key to helping children engage with technology.
Past attempts to give children in developing countries access to PCs have failed as children did not see the computers as their own, and as a result did not engage with them as expected. "People say we just gave 100,000 PCs to schools, and they are still sitting in their boxes. The problem is that you gave them to the wrong people — the kids don't think they are theirs, and see them as government property, or they are locked up after school," Negroponte told the Red Hat user conference earlier this year.
The scheme has not been without its detractors, most noticeably the Indian Government, which has decided not to pre-order any of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) machines claiming the project is too high risk and the money would be better spent on other learning tools. But despite concerns about the strategy, and whether it will come in on price — the laptop is hovering around the $120 mark at present — the overall aim of bridging the so-called digital divide is sound.
However, the OLPC project is not the only organisation to have focused on the lack of computing devices and infrastructure in the developing world. AMD announced last week that it had decided to pull the plug on its Personal Internet Communicator (PIC). The PIC was introduced in 2004 as part of AMD's 50x15 project, through which the company has pledged to help bring internet access to half the world's population by 2015. But sales of the product never made an impact on AMD's bottom line, and the chipmaker has stopped manufacturing it. Microsoft has also proffered its own solution to bringing cheap computing to the masses via mobile phones, while Intel has its own Community PC initiative.
But not all attempts to bring cheap tech to the developing world are based around new, proprietary technology. Charities such as the UK's Computer Aid currently take old PCs from enterprises, refurbish them and donate them to NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in Africa and South America. The organisation's chief executive Tony Roberts claims AMD and the OLPC project are risky strategies, as they are based around new bespoke technology. "They are looking to introduce a non-standard, untested platform... which they will only sell to governments," he said in a recent interview. "The decision to buy will be made by politicians who are elected every five years, and politicians generally don't take the decision to risk their political future on non-standard technology."
An alternative to both the refurbished PCs and the OLPC approach has been developed by two UK academics. Ndiyo, the Swahili word for "yes", is a project that aims to allow multiple users access to the same PC. Rather than trying to push more bespoke devices on countries with meagre IT budgets, Ndiyo allows one PC to be shared by five to 10 individuals by turning it into a mini-server networked to a series of thin clients.
The brain-child of Quentin Stafford-Fraser, a former research scientist at AT&T Laboratories Cambridge, Ndiyo is based around the untapped ability of the Linux operating system (Ubuntu) to support numerous simultaneous users. Together with his partner, technical author and Open University professor John Naughton, Stafford-Fraser decided that the traditional idea of one machine per user was a model that just didn't make economic or functional sense for the developing world. Instead, in the Ndiyo model, a Linux PC becomes a server to a series of "ultra-thin-clients" — called Nivos — which allow an extra display, keyboard and mouse to be connected to the computer via a standard network cable.
ZDNet UK caught up with Stafford-Fraser and Naughton recently to find out how their technology works and why it makes more sense than the strategies being developed by heavyweights such as Intel and OLPC.
Ideally, Ndiyo users would be able to simply install your version of Ubuntu onto their existing hardware and then attach the Nivo thin clients to turn their old box into a thin-client server — is that the case?
SF: With recycled Pentium IIs you might find there are performance issues but our aim is to make minimal changes to Linux. We could have had a substantial distribution of our own. People who understand Linux should understand this. Eventually the machine should look like it did when you started but you can add a number of users to it.
JN: It also depends on what level of user you are. There is a case for us thinking about semi-packaged solutions. One of the big issues in the developing world is uneven distribution of Linux expertise. Our Ubuntu distribution will have all the drivers you need. One of the big advantages of our approach is that, if you have a set of CRTs, Nivo will work perfectly well with those and any keyboard and mouse.
One of the projects that has interested us a lot is the Skolelinux project in Norway — where they have a very large number of schools running Linux networks. One of their goals was that a non-technical teacher could get 20 workstations up and running in 40 minutes from a standing start, and there is part of me that would like us to do that with Ndiyo. They are doing for it real and it was pretty lavishly funded by the Norwegian Government.
But getting machines up and running is one thing — what about supporting them?
SF: One of the earlier concepts we had at Ndiyo is that they will work in situations where you have limited support on the ground. The terminals are appliances that take pixels that are sent to them and put them on the screen. What that means is that if you have a 10-user system, you are only administering one PC. By making terminals that are...