TECH TALK: The Digital Divide: Software

4. Software

The USD 100 Desktop Computer in a thin client-thick server configuration provide the computing base to help proliferate technology much beyond the numbers we have seen in the past 25 years. In the past quarter century, coinciding with the dominance of Microsoft in software, the installed computer has gone from nearly nothing to 500 million. There is an opportunity of a similar magnitude in the next 7-10 years: to build the software platform for the next 500 million computers which will be adopted by people and organisations living and serving the other side of the digital divide.

This software platform cannot cost hundreds of dollars for software. The result at these price points is there in front of us: large-scale piracy which hinders the incentive for software makers to targets these markets. Software has to be thought bottom-up in an innovative manner which that the entire suite of applications is available for no more than USD 5 (Rs 250) per person per month. This calls for an organisation to investing the equivalent of Rs 10 per business day on each of its employees for software. They will do so if they can see the productivity improvements at least yielding them that much benefit per day. Thought of in this manner, software becomes much more of a utility than an IT accessory.

To achieve these price points, software will need to be built on an open source platform, but with incentives for developers to spend time localising and customizing applications for the needs of their markets. The building blocks already exist: Linux as the operating system, KDE and Gnome as the graphical user interfaces, Mozilla as the email client and Web browser, Jabber for instant messaging, OpenOffice (which has served as the base for Star Office – Sun will soon be charging USD 100 for Star Office) for the suite of desktop productivity applications (including a word processor, a spreadsheet and presentation software) and Apache as the web server. What is needed is for software developers to build “Lego-like” on top of these applications and contribute their work back to the open source community, strengthening and extending the base.

Software applications for bridging the digital divide will need to support local languages and voice input/output. In India itself, there are over fifteen languages in use. Technology must connect to the people in their language. Voice becomes important because the keyboard may not always be the best mode of input, especially given the complexities of some of the languages. With a limited vocabulary, it should be possible to make voice recognition work well to interact with a much larger mass of people than just English can enable.

TECH TALK: Digital Divide: Cellphones

5. Cellphones

The number of mobile-telephone subscribers will overtake that of fixed subscribers this year, according to new figures from the International Telecommunications Union, says the Economist (April 6, 2002). It continues: “The boom in mobile telephony has helped the world’s least developed countries above the important threshold of one telephone subscriber per 100 inhabitants.” This compares with 120 fixed lines and mobile users per 100 inhabitants in advanced countries and 20 in emerging countries.

Phones (fixed and mobile) are a great way to bridge the digital divide. A phone cuts away the isolation of the individual. It becomes a window to the world (just like television) – the difference being that the phone can be used much more as business tool. The cost of a GSM phone has fallen dramatically and is available for less than USD 100 (Rs 5,000). Prepaid phone cards are helping the bottom of the pyramid adopt a mobile phone as the primary mode of communications.

In many places, a cellphone helps provide connectivity to a community. Writes Kumar Venkat: “[In each village in Bangladesh], an entrepreneur purchases cellphone service from a subsidiary of Grameen Bank, and operates a pay-per-call service that in effect connects the whole village to the telephone network.”

The cellphone can also open up better business opportunities. In Kerala, for example, fishermen use their cellphones to check prices of fish with different seafood markets. Writes Saritha Rai in The New York Times (August 4, 2001):

In the seas southwest of Bangalore off the coast of southern India, the steady drone of motorized fishing boats is often interrupted by the ringing of mobile phones. Even as they land their catch in the boats, fishermen are already in touch with the dozen-odd seafood markets around here, checking prices at different ports.

One fisherman, Ratish Karthikeyan, says that since he acquired his BPL mobile service over a year ago, his profit on each eight-day fishing run in his trawler has doubled. Two months ago, for instance, Mr. Karthikeyan, 35, netted an extra $1,000 by using his phone to compare prices at Cochin with those at Quilon, a port 85 miles away.

The 5,000 fishermen who work off the coast of Kerala state are not alone in embracing wireless technology. From garment exporters in Tiruppur in the south to farmers in Punjab in the north, rural India has discovered the convenience of doing business on mobile phones. Many areas have never had conventional fixed-line service.

“As farmers and small-business men realize the impact of mobile communications on the pace and efficiency of their lives, usage is shooting up rapidly,” said Sandip Das, the chief executive of Fascel.

“Life without a mobile phone,” said Mr. Karthikeyan, the Cochin fisherman, “is unthinkable.”