Mobile phones, developing nations, an amazing solution! (Article by Shane)

Shane M. Coughlan shane at
Sat Apr 22 00:18:24 UTC 2006

Hash: SHA256

Alex Hudson wrote:
> I would think in most communities, especially in large continents like
> Africa, people would generally receive TV over a satellite link.
> Satellite set-top boxes already have the TV output hardware, they
> sometimes run Free operating systems, have modems and serial ports, and
> could easily be adapted to allow a keyboard and/or mouse to be plugged
> in (in fact, Sky systems have come with keyboards in the past). Because
> they're bigger and don't have the same mobile size constraints, they
> could also be made cheaper, and the cost of providing general purpose
> computing facility would likely be most a software one, compared to the
> extra hardware required in a mobile phone.

I believe you're talking about the richest aspects of developing
societies.  In many countries people are using standard terrestrial
televisions to receive standard signals.  The cost of satellite
technology is extremely prohibitive.  Certainly in Thailand, China,
Malaysia, Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Brazil terrestrial
television is very common.  I was referring to the low tech end of TV units.

As for making the units cheaper, yes.  This is possible.  However,
people are already distributing mobile technology for voice
communication purposes.  Extending functionality to allow for ICT
functions (email, word processing, etc) would not involve much in the
way of a hardware solution.  USB ports already exist in many phones -
especially in Japan and Korea - and some phones already include some
form of video-out.  These two hardware functions and some innovative
software would complete the ICT loop.

> Granted it's not as portable as a mobile, but a mobile which requires a
> TV and keyboard to work as a computer isn't really a portable computer
> unlike the OLPC. Plus, they're still going to need both satellite TV and
> mobile phones.

Not satellite TV.  Just a TV set.  The mobile phone is already
distributing itself.  Rather than suggesting a new technology, I'm
suggesting extending existing technologies slightly to allow for vastly
extended functionality.

Reading through the Microsoft Research thoughts on this matter, it seems
that their approach might favour a *new product* idea.  Perhaps a neat
"developing nation Windows CE mobile" thing.  That's not what I favour.

I think that (a) our current phone hardware can be extended with minimal
cost and effort to provide the potential for ICT functionality.  I
further propose (b) that we can use a cooperative server-based software
development model using little shared components to provide what appear
to be quite powerful applications.  In reality these applications are
light-weight front-ends that call lots of light-weight single-purpose
services that are usually not running.

I think this could be good for getting lots of functionality into small
spaces and for fostering quick application development.  As long as the
services are well-designed, they would provide really good tools for
applications to call.  Furthermore, it could be in Java, allowing
everything to be totally cross-platform.  It would not matter who made
the phones or what form of CPU was running the show.

If you think about it, this model could work effectively with Free
Software.  It would be cooperative software, where application
interaction of all sorts would have to be both totally open and well
documented.  Each new service could be called by all applications, and
each application front-end would be really light.  It might be possible
to create specialist applications are very low cost once a certain
critical mass is reached with regards having functional and stable services.

> I'm not totally sold on the TV as an output device. Contrary to the
> figures you quoted, the maximum horizontal resolution for text is
> somewhere in the region of 400/500 pixels, sometimes less (many older
> TVs start losing focus, which isn't noticeable on most TV programmes,
> but very noticeable on computer displays). Plus, the 576 vertical
> display isn't really either - it's 288 lines per scan, then interlaced.
> Reading text on an interlaced screen can be horrendous. So, you're
> talking somewhere nearer QVGA than VGA in my opinion, and mobile phones
> are already at that resolution (I hear there's a VGA one coming out soon
> too).

On this point I don't agree.  Having used Sinclair Spectrums, C64s,
Oracles and (my personal favourite) the Memotech, I have found
televisions to be a decent - if imperfect - textual device.

I think televisions work well enough as long as we don't push resolution
too far.  You made a good point about interlacing, and you are quite
correct that this can make text problematic on some occasions.  But for
a significant amount of time we did manage to display a great deal of
textual information on these devices, and I feel confident that we can
do so once again.

> I also thought that the OLPC project would be better served trying to
> make a more up-to-date version of the Psion Series 3 or something -
> those things lasted for weeks on two AA batteries, and you could get
> some really good software for them. I'm sure I bought mine for something
> less than £200, and they were always pretty niche machines.

On this point I certainly agree with you.  I think the $100 laptop is a
*great* idea.  However, great ideas do not make great products.  It
takes a lot of time and careful testing to push out new technology.
I've been working on mobile encrypted email platforms for more than six
months with a team, and we're building on Mozilla, GPG and Enigmail
code.  We're only really getting into shape now.

Creating a new laptop with new design concepts and a new operating
system...ouch.  That's a lot of variables.  The suggested time frame
just sounds too ambitious, and this is beginning to show with delays and
redesign decisions.

I hope the $100 laptop stays on (altered) track.  However, I do think it
might be along later than people think.  Working on something like a
Psion Series 3 would bring a product to the market a lot faster.  I
think extending mobile phones with small hardware alterations and clever
software would also give potential benefit.


- --
Shane Martin Coughlan
e: shane at
m: +447773180107
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