Accidental appropriate technologies

#1: The Amazon Kindle

While growing numbers of people in the development sector get increasingly excited at the potential of tablet computing for health, agriculture, education and other development activities, it’s the Amazon Kindle that’s been exciting me recently. The irony is, without really trying, Amazon have built something which more closely resembles an appropriate technology than other organisations who have specifically gone out to try and build one.

So, what makes the Kindle so special?

  1. It’s light, relatively rugged, and mobile
  2. Ten days reading time on one charge
  3. One month ‘standby’ time between charges
  4. Solar panel cover option removes the need for mains charging
  5. Built-in dictionary and thesaurus
  6. Display can be read in bright sunlight
  7. Internal storage for up to 200 books
  8. No need for the Internet once books are loaded
  9. Text-to-speech for illiterate/semi-literate users
  10. Costs continue to come down
  11. Remote delivery of books and materials (local wi-fi permitting)

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this. A year or two ago the highlight of an ICT4D conference I attended was a short video showing children in West Africa using Amazon Kindles. I’ll never forget how they interacted with the devices, and what having access to one meant to them and their hopes of an education. Not many technologies give us these little glimpses of magic.

Imagine, all the books a child would ever need to see them through their basic education, all packed into a ~$100 device.

The people behind that video were from Worldreader.org, an organisation whose mission is to “make digital books available to all in the developing world, enabling millions of people to improve their lives”.

We often say in mobiles-for-development that today most people in the developing world will make their first phone call on a mobile, and have their first experience of the Internet on one, too. Perhaps children, in the not-too-distant future, will have their first experience of reading on an e-reader?

88 thoughts on “Accidental appropriate technologies

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  2. kiwanja says:

    @Roberto – Thanks for your thoughts. I agree and disagree. I’m not sure if $80 is really that expensive given the typical expensive equipment development projects try to spread around the world. Assuming the books can be loaded at low cost this is probably cheaper overall than physical books over the course of a student’s lifetime. Versatility-wise, the Kindle is great because it just focusses on doing one thing, and one thing well. I think the tendency in development to think that convergence and multi-access devices are best isn’t always the right one. The Kindle sucks at web stuff because it’s not designed to do that. If it were to focus more on being a communications device then it would end up with a high resolutions (less power-efficient) screen, would then not have the long battery life it does now, would probably end up being more complex to use, would have use/cost/data access implications, and so on. I think it’s a reasonable compromise to focus on just being an e-reader and let phones, laptops and tablets battle it out for everything else.

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  17. Roberto Borlini says:

    @kiwanja: don’t take me wrong, the kindle is a great device, I agree 100% wih you. My concern is that in the developing contexts where I have worked, children use 1-2 books over the course of their studies. Providing them with a kindle would not make much of a difference. Good teachers receiving a decent salary seems to be a much more effective and sustainable “technology”.

  18. kiwanja says:

    @Roberto – Thanks for commenting. I’d have to agree that no technology can or should replace the teacher, but in the absence of enough of those, and an absence of physical books (for a variety of reasons) the Kindle may be a solution. Do children only use two books because that’s all they need, or because that’s all they can get hold of? I’d imagine the learning experience being considerably richer if they had access to more books, and books for pleasure (rather than just traditional education).

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