A new laptop design for the one-laptop-per-child project is being worked out. They have removed the keyboard and replaced it by a touch screen. This turns into a touch sensitive keyboard during normal operation, and the laptop can be used as an e-book reader otherwise. The price is $75, which sounds too good to be true.

I used to be very critical of the OLPC project during its earlier stages because I could not understand the rationale behind giving a personal laptop to each child, instead of having them access a shared PC in a kiosk for example. The kiosk model would have been much cheaper, and it could even have encouraged a culture of sharing among children. Although this argument is still true to some extent, evidenced by the poor response from pilot projects in Nigeria, but I now appreciate the project for many other reasons. For one, it led big companies like Intel to focus on extremely low-cost designs for computers, which may be used not just by children, but even by adults to access information. Second, these is a spirit of continuous innovation in the project which is critical in order to build an appropriate technology that correctly fits in the context in which children and adults in developing countries would use it. Third, the $75 price tag is fabulous. Considering that mobile phones now cost hardly $20 but these models do not have good text and image displays, the $75 laptop plus e-book reader could be a perfect complement.

Many hurdles still remain though, a prominent one being that Internet connectivity in remote rural areas in developing countries is extremely poor. In India, although state governments are funding SWANs (State Wide Area Networks) to provide connectivity to rural kiosks, it may still take many years for large scale deployment to happen. Solutions to provide connectivity to a central hub in each village using long distance WiFi links or asynchronous connectivity through mechanical backhaul seem suitable. Devices like the OLPC laptop can use WiFi to access downloaded content at the hubs, or periodically upload content such as queries about what crop rotation pattern to follow, or how to set up a small-scale-industry to manufacture mosquito coils, etc.

So how does all of this tie in with the community radio model of Gram Vaani? Community radio is in fact only one technology that we are starting to improve and experiment with, but our goal is more broad, and includes any technology that can be used to improve media delivery and citizen participation in rural areas. In the future, we will also develop systems to enable news delivery on cellphones, and even on devices such as the $75 laptop. These devices have the advantage that their user interface is more suitable to solicit citizen feedback, as compared to radio. Being a broadcast medium, radio of course has other advantages in terms of community involvement and reachability. Therefore, one avenue of innovation for us will always lie in understanding the epistemological characteristics of different media, and to use them in a complementary manner to best serve society.