Saturday, August 01, 2009

Computers for developing communities?

During the past several years, we had been involved with a number of computer-related projects in various less developed communities in the world, such as north-west China, rural areas in central China, India, central Africa, etc. For example, we helped a school in remote Gansu set up a computer network, taught the use of computers in a school in rural Hubei, and consulted with schools / community centers in Inner Mongolia, India and central Africa. They usually encounter one or more of these problems: lack of computers, outdated computers, lack of software, outdated software, lack of / expensive Internet access, lack of expertise to support the use of computers, etc. Solutions depend on the specific problems encountered and there is no universal solution that fits all communities.

One observation stand out, however. Microsoft Windows is a poor choice in most cases; and there are numerous reasons for it.

First of all, it is expensive; that is true for both the operating system itself and Windows-based software such as MsOffice. Secondly, it is generally not upward compatible; software that run on Windows-XP generally cannot run on Vista. Thirdly, it requires expensive machines with an enormous amount of memory and disk space, and very fast CPUs. Fourthly, it is much too bloated and complex; less sophisticated users tend to use only a small portion of its functions. Fifthly, it is much too susceptible to viruses and other problems; solutions such as firewalls, anti-virus scanners and reborn cards are hard to use for less sophisticated users. Sixthly, ...

Are there better solutions? Of course, open source systems such as Linux, OpenOffice, etc., offer much less expensive solutions that can run on less expensive machines with fewer problems. However, much effort is still required to popularize such solutions, and make them more accessible to developing communities. I believe professional ethics require computer professionals to put some genuine efforts in this direction.


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