I am Mbwana Alliy of Afrinnovator, and in my last post, I predicted tablets would start surfacing into the mainstream in Africa this year, especially within education. When I wrote that post I had not even given a second thought that the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) would be a factor to consider. And I still don’t think they will be at this stage even with all the buzz and excitement coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) which kicks off this week.

I personally think CES is increasingly becoming a bad predictor of what’s hot in the coming year- last year, tablets were meant to go mainstream with the introduction of 3.0 Honeycomb- that did not happen as much as took the world by storm. I also don’t think launching a tablet aimed at the developing world will elicit the sort of reaction from the right audience- are there any school teachers from the developing world or indeed African ministries of education going to be in Las Vegas this week?

The XO3 tablet actually looks really good. Great hardware design. Very thoughtful on specs and ports you’d expect on a tablet to allow all sorts of accessories from external drive, mic/headphone to multiple power charging port options. The power and charging feature have me most excited- the ARM chipset power efficiency and the cover doubling as a solar panel makes solar and hand crank charging practical. 6 mins cranking gives 1 hour usage, 1 hour solar charging gives 2 hours of use- not bad.

Continuing on the hardware side, it would be nice to have 3G wireless connectivity option (expensive and power hungry I know). But I feel this allows the tablet to be a lot more mobile given the growth of mobile internet in Africa- I feel relying on wifi in the classroom is limiting, after all the tablet is meant to be owned by the child and hence taken home- how are they meant to do research and homework when wifi at home is not guaranteed? 3G may also not be guaranteed but as I predicted- I feel it will grow this year to support smartphone growth and even then 2G speeds may still be able to allow the device to download ebooks- always on connection is better than no connection in my opinion. I guess they can just be books loaded for offline reading, 4GB space is plenty to hold this type of content.

On the software side, I am relieved that there will be an Android option- I feel like the linux based Sugar OS is pointless given history of linux projects backed with organizations with limited support- why not build on Android and further customize for educational needs? This is where we start to hit some of the issues I have with the OLPC model.

I did some digging and found that the OLPC initiative has shipped around 2M laptops since they begun 6 years ago. When you hone in on Africa, they don’t even approach 250,000. Its pathetic really- the OLPC has not delivered on its mission (at least in Africa) yet and it has to do with its distribution model. The devices have always been sold via Educational ministries and here lies the first problem, in Africa this is just not practical unless you go via President Kagame in Rwanda who has an iron fist rule and can push things forward quickly. Recently there were suggestions of air dropping laptops and tablets to schools-I am assuming a response to get around corrupt governments? All this still doesn’t help address the core mission of OLPC- education and getting as many devices out there as possible.

The gadget and hardware business is becoming increasingly fast paced and risky. And the commercial market has proven time and time again to be the best way to both reduce price and increase volume to the masses…Even then, success is not guaranteed, look what happened to HP and RIM/Blackberry with their tablet forays last year? In contrast look at Amazon’s kindle fire, the only real competitor to the iPad- important lessons can be drawn here.

Ultimately it comes down to price in Africa (and indeed other parts of the world)- lets hope they can hit the $200 price point at retail ($100 would be near impossible in Africa this year). Then there is the $35 Indian Aakesh tablet- a wild card initiated by the Government, they have shunned the OLPC model by at least taking charge of their own destiny- in this model they have dummed down the tablet functionality and are probably heavily subsidizing it to hit the $35 price point. India’s market is so vast, they could easily sell 5M in 1 year and be considered a success.

So is the 3.0 right for Africa? I would say no if they intend to achieve their mission anytime soon… Here are some things I would do to improve OLPCs model in Africa:

  1. Diversify the distribution model: They should consider partnering with mobile operators to distribute, market and subsidize as well as add a 3G wireless chip. These organizations already have scale in Africa and they can help distribute the tablet much more efficiently and are more aligned to partner. Safaricom sold 350,000 Ideos smartphones in less than 6 months- how many other smartphones and feature phones were sold this way? Try 600M.
  2. Build better on the ground partnerships & Focus on content distribution: Take advantage of AppStore (yes, stick to Android) for local distribution of content and empower developers together with educational ministries, education NGOs within target countries to develop content. Working with mobile operators also makes it easier to do so. By working with local organizations on the ground they can better assess content and other needs- they can also be valuable training partners for teachers who can then teach students. “Driveby tablet dropping” will not work.
  3. Learn from Amazon, pick one use case and nail it, then expand: Amazon started with the kindle ebook reader, proved there was demand then scaled out to other use cases before bringing it to a full blown tablet over time- the model is less risky than betting on a bunch of tablet features up front and not have any traction, this would avoid the mistakes of RIM/Blackberry and HP. It also helps you focus on price initially and tier additional features over time.
  4. Change the name away from OLPC: The name is already outdated, just as Apple Computer became just Apple, they need to recognize that their mission is not likely to be served by doing PC laptops anymore. Tablets are perfect for education, recognize that fast or be outsold by others. Laptops/PCs are better suited for productivity. I would be very surprised if they didn’t do this soon- otherwise they will just create confusion and sound outdated.
  5. Become a social enterprise, Charities can’t compete in the hardware business: They should move away from a not-for-profit model. A fully profit model would be too hard for them to transition at this stage, so they should do the next best thing and become a social enterprise- this would allow them to access more capital for scaling up from the growing number of impact investors interested in education within Africa and around the world. They can then address more practical distribution models vs relying on Governments and air drops. Better distribution models for both the devices and content that I mentioned is ultimately the name of the game in the hardware business. Right now OLPC is a design house with very limited scale- and after 6 years, they should be scaling out if they are to achieve their mission this decade.

 

 


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