Raspberry Pi with peripherals attached (left) and the Raspberry Pi model B (right).
But will this development opportunity be realized? Recent history is
littered with the skeletons of low-cost
such as the People’s PC and the Sim-puter.a Question marks continue to be
raised over the One-Laptop-Per-Child
initiative. 4 So will ULCC and Raspberry
Pi be any different?
Drawing on recent work analyzing
what makes IT innovations scale in
low-income markets, 2 we can identify
three domains that need to function
Supply factors. Per-computer costs
in the Cameroon school were above
$300, nearly three-quarters of which
was the cost of monitors and monitor
HDMI/VGA convertors. Sourcing or
development of low-cost monitors will
be a necessity if ULCC is to be the basis
for PCs as opposed to the controllers/
sensors of the third opportunity—
data collection and automatic applications—described earlier.
Production and local distribution
and marketing will also need to be addressed; something on which the Raspberry Pi Foundation is playing catchup. It was formed as a spare-time, pro
bono initiative that expected to ship
10,000 units in total, and which has
struggled to meet demand in the global North that is already around the one-million mark; leave alone thoughts
about addressing the global South.
Perhaps the best hope is that it might,
as the One-Laptop-Per-Child initiative
did, induce copycat private manufacturers to follow suit.
Demand factors. If, ironically, cost
is not yet the unique selling point for
ULCC, then what is? Likely, it is “tin-
a Acknowledgment to John L. King for this and a
number of other points in this column.
ker-ability” but that will limit demand
to college and university sites in the
developing world. Households, communities, even most schools do not
want to tinker; they want something
that will deliver useful applications.
For them Pi in its current form may
well be underdesigned and under-bundled: their demand is for something more like a current smartphone
or netbook. Ultra-low-cost computing
will only find a major market if it can
deliver those types of devices at significantly lower cost.
The alternative is, once again, the
data collection and automation applications opportunity: the “gizmo route”
that would find a killer application for
the developing world in an electronic
device built around ULCC; a device
that would meet an important need of
low-income communities. If that does
emerge, it will come most likely from
the grassroots or collaborative innovation approaches described.
Contextual factors. Even if these
supply and demand factors can be
met, ULCC in developing countries
faces other challenges. Poor access to
electricity probably is not one. This
remains a major computing-for-development stumbling block: it tripped up
efforts to use biometrics in the 2013
Kenyan elections. But ULCC devices’
very low power consumption means
they can be used much more easily in
The limited skill infrastructure is
much more problematic. Underbun-dling demands greater skills at the
point of implementation, and ongoing literacy and IT skill deficits remain
significant generic barriers to computing. Yet again, packaging ultra-low-cost computing into realtively simple
electronic devices may be the answer.
In sum, ultra-low-cost computing offers a good amount of promise for
development but that is true of most
IT innovations. The core issue is what
lies between that promise and widespread use. At the moment, the challenges to scaling ULCC for people at
the base-of-the-pyramid look daunting. Raspberry Pi, at least, may remain
a tertiary education niche product
with a very few secondary education
One cannot help remembering,
though, that mobile telephony looked
very much like this at the end of the
1990s. Firms saw no demand among
low-income users and had no plans to
develop that market. Only after a few
innovators stepped in—including non-profits and international donors—was
there a demonstration effect that induced larger players to enter.
We will wait and see if there is any
such ULCC demonstration effect, either for computers or for electronic
devices. At present, this is a blank canvas waiting to be painted, held back by
our need to reconceptualize; to rethink
what is possible and what is feasible
and what is desirable in a world of very
cheap computing power.
In part the next chapter will depend
on many of those within the ACM community: Can we reconceptualize and
develop new ideas, initiatives, and
partnerships that will fulfill ULCC’s
socioeconomic development potential? Over to you…
ICTs for Development. (oct. 29, 2012); http://
2. heeks, r. Why m-Pesa outperforms other
developing country mobile money schemes.
ICTs for Development (nov. 24, 2012); http://
3. maertens, g. bringing computing to rural cameroon.
Raspberry Pi (apr. 4, 2013); http://www.raspberrypi.
4. ozler, b. one laptop Per child is not improving reading
or math. Development Impact (June 14, 2012); http://
Richard heeks ( email@example.com) is
Director of the centre for Development Informatics at the
university of manchester, u.k.; http://www.cdi.manchester.
Andrew Robinson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) has
worked in education and public outreach at the School of
computer Science at the university of manchester, u.k.
copyright held by author.