Next revolution

The Rs 1,500 or $35 laptop unveiled by human resources development minister Kapil Sibal is not just a technological surprise. It is meant to be a major tool in bridging India’s digital divide, by moving millions of poor children into the world of letters and numbers and co-opting them into the process of development. A cheap computer available at less than $100 has been a technological dream. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed one for children in developing countries, though the cost actually went up to $200. MIT’s famous professor Nicholas Negroponte had propounded the idea of lifting all the world’s poor children into literacy through digital means. The idea is not outlandish if there is a cheap computer, ways and means to take it to the children.

The laptop, or more accurately the computing-accessing device, was developed by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and Indian Institutes of Technology. It is not an apology for a computer but is a touch screen device with all the basic functions — a web browser, multimedia player, PDF reader, Wi-Fi and video-conferencing facility. It is based on open source Linux, uses very little power and has a solar power option, which is an important requirement in villages. The price is expected to fall further when economies of scale come into operation and the dream is to provide it to make it available at less than Rs 500, ultimately. And the users can go beyond students and the shores of the country. At present the plan is to subsidise the laptop and provide it to students at Rs 750 after the prototype is developed into a product. Going by the current pace of development and interest in the device it should happen soon.

The laptop can make a difference only when the students come to the schools, teachers are present and when the general educational infrastructure is in place. If all these combine the country will be able to leap across the literacy and digital divide and take full advantage of the demographic advantage in the coming decades. Computers can be used efficiently to impart literacy, improve skills and to empower the people. The cheap laptop is also a testament to the country’s innovative spirit and creative talent. The greater challenge is to put it to good use and show results.

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