Can a $7 USB Stick Provide Computer Access to Billions?

2014-05-12 USB Stick

I like this idea, but it doesn’t go far enough.

The concept is to take a customized version of Google’s Android operating system1 and install it on a USB drive. Then give the drives to poor folk, starting with students and staff at schools in Nairobi slums. On its own, the USB drive isn’t very useful, but if you plug it into a computer (any computer, including old computers and computers with broken hard drives) you get a customized, easy-to-use PC. In addition to ease of use and the ability to run on just about any hardware you can find, the device will store all your info on itself, so you can plug it into a different computer next time and all your files and settings will still be there.

So you get lower hardware requirements, simplicity of use, and portability of data. Not bad!

But, as long as we’re talking about deployment in the developing world and using Android’s OS, why not go a little farther. Instead of running on a USB stick, you could put the data on a micro SD card that can be inserted into a cell phone. Then you’d expand the program to include computers and cell phones. Given that lots of folks in the developing world interact with the Internet primarily through cell phones rather than through laptops or PCs, this seems like it would be a bigger step forward. Honestly, a technology did that would be something that could sort of unify the way the developed and developing world interact with technology and each other. I’d love to have a kind of seamless computing experience that followed me from light computer use on my phone to serious number-crunching on a dedicated work station.

2 thoughts on “Can a $7 USB Stick Provide Computer Access to Billions?”

  1. While admittedly millions of people in Africa have cell phones now who did not even just a decade ago, please don’t imagine that African villagerss are using Androids and surfing the net. Many are extremely poor with limited access to electricity. Ingeniously, they use their tiny Chinese-made cell phones as banking system, transferring credits on the phone to others in exchange for trades and barters, but many, especially the women,, have limited reading skills. This idea is a good step in the right direction, but until literacy and infrastructure both improve, it is only a small step.

  2. While admittedly millions of people in Africa have cell phones now who did not even just a decade ago, please don’t imagine that African villagerss are using Androids and surfing the net

    Nope, I don’t imagine that at all.

    The point of using cell phones is not that everyone already has one now (I’ve actually done research into market penetration in African nations for an old job, so I’m familiar with the stats), but rather that relatively cheap and wireless technology allows developing nations to leap-frog some of the phase that the developed nations went through in their own technological process.

    For example, Internet penetration in the US started with phone landlines a hundred years ago. Fax and modem technology piggy-backed on this infrastructure. Similarly, broadband access piggy-backed on cable TV infrastructure. The point is that the US had a history of running a lot of cable all across the country before anyone had even heard of “the Internet.”

    Requiring a similar layout of infrastructure in Africa would definitely slow down the growth of technology there, but it turns out not to be necessary. Wireless technology is a lot cheaper to deploy, and that is why Africans who do have access are more likely to access the Internet via their phone.

    So, yeah: I’m not talking about some crazy world where every kid in the slums of Nairobi already has a Samsung Galaxy S5 or something ridiculous like that. I’m just talking about trying to lower the barriers to entry.

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