Much has been made about the mobile “revolution” in the developing world, the way that smartphones have enabled the citizens of so many poorer countries to leapfrog into the 21st century without having to bother with all the awkward technological steps in between.
It’s that mentality that’s driving the development of Facebook’s internet-connected drones and Google’s internet-connected balloons. The thinking goes that because so many people in the developing world are buying smartphones (and they are), all they need is access to the internet, and they’ll be well on their way to becoming full, equal participants in the global economy.
We’re now used to always being connected, and that's dangerous. Rich Fletcher, MIT
In some ways, the mobile-plus-internet combo has the potential to deliver on its promise. There’s a lot—and increasingly more—that you can do on a smartphone. But then again, think of all the things you can’t, or, at the very least, that you just wouldn’t want to—like draft a presentation, populate an Excel spreadsheet, or write this story. When you think of it that way, all this talk of what people in the developing world can accomplish if only they had a mobile phone and an internet connection can seem a bit, well, patronizing.
As it turns out, people with less might actually want more.
“They want the same things you and I have, and not just because we have it,” says tech entrepreneur Matt Dalio. “They want the same things you and I have for the same reason you and I have it.”
Which is precisely why Dalio founded Endless, a startup that has developed a PC and operating system for the developing world. Endless launched a Kickstarter project for the device this week, but the campaign is mostly for marketing, since the team has spent the last three years developing the technology and testing it with users throughout the developing world. Now, Endless wants to expand that reach even further.
Not Waiting for A Connection
The hardware itself is a small, egg-like device that can plug into any television and turn it into a computer screen, giving people instant access to a desktop computer for just $169. This price point means, initially, Endless is not targeting the bottom of the pyramid, but the emerging middle class within these countries that may be able to afford a device like this.
But the real innovation is not the device itself. It’s the operating system, which Endless built from scratch, specifically for people who have limited experience with computers and who don’t always have a reliable connection to the internet. Designing it required spending a huge amount of time on the ground, in countries like India, Guatemala, and Bangladesh, testing out the technology with users. It was that process that not only convinced Dalio that mobile technology was an incomplete solution for the developing world, but also helped him understand that the Endless team would have to completely rethink the way a computer should operate in order to succeed.
For starters, Endless had to address the lack of connectivity in these countries, an issue which companies like Facebook and Google are actively seeking to address, but which will take years, if not decades, to complete. So, the Endless team took a cue from the early days of PCs by loading the devices up with more than 100 apps, including things like Khan Academy, encyclopedias, health apps, and more, which work both online and off. “We thought, we can’t give them better connectivity, but what we can do is solve it in the way we used to solve it before we had internet, and that was to have something like Encarta,” he says, referring to Microsoft’s digital encyclopedia, which was popular in the 90s.
Off the Grid
According to Rich Fletcher, a research scientist at MIT’s D-Lab, it’s this offline capability that distinguishes the Endless PC from other similar technologies that have failed to make this type of technology work in the past. “We’re now used to always being connected, and that’s dangerous,” Fletcher says. “Having a local cache or server that lets you use apps that don’t require full-time connectivity is really important.”
Still, Fletcher says Dalio and his team may be underestimating the extent to which people in the developing world want “the same things we have,” and not an adaptation of them. “If the people in New York and Boston aren’t using this Endless computer, people in the developing world are going to be very cautious,” Fletcher says. “They’re going to say, ‘What is this? Why doesn’t my cousin in New York have one, and if he doesn’t want it, why should I?'”
Then, there is the question of electricity. Though Endless is targeting a market segment that generally has electricity and modern appliances, Fletcher warns that in many parts of the world, the grid is less than reliable. “Just like always-on connectivity, you cannot assume always-on electricity.”
For that matter, you can’t assume that Endless will succeed at all, or Facebook’s drones or Google’s balloons. But one assumption that is safe to make is that users, no matter where they live, won’t be content with a second-class experience. Mobile might be good enough for lots of things. But it isn’t everything.