Bridging the African digital divide - with a ‘toaster’
Lines form at open-source software vending-machines.
Johannesburg, South Africa
The interior of the massive Chamber of Mines Building, on the west end of the University of Witwatersrand’s main campus, is like a dark, concrete maze. Drab stairways, imposing walls, the slightest glimpse of light from an interior courtyard – it’s almost as if the architects hoped to invoke a mine shaft.Skip to next paragraph
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So, when you get to the reception area for the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, it’s hard not to do a double take at the shiny orange, vending machine-sized box with the cheerful cartoon logo – the one that proclaims “Burn free, as free as the source flows!” It seems gleefully out of place.
“Here it is!” exclaims Brett Simpson, himself an energetic anomaly within the sober walls of this building. He puts his hand to the machine as if slapping it on the back. “A Freedom Toaster.”
So far, to the uninitiated, the words connected with this man-sized box make little sense. But this is Mr. Simpson’s new quest in life, as the head of Breadbin Interactive, the company now charged with producing Toasters: to explain why this machine is a bright spot in the sometimes drab, often challenging, world of African technology; why it can knock down some of the computing obstacles in the global digital divide.
Before you can understand, though, you have to realize that life can be tough for a South African technophile. Even here – the most developed African country – electronic equipment is outrageously expensive (often double Western prices). Fre-quent power surges and outages can wreak havoc on computers. Only 5 percent of the population has Internet access. And those who do go online encounter the real doozy – limited bandwidth. (Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred simultaneously on the Internet highway.)
This last challenge – caused in part by a lack of hardware, in part by telecom monopolies – is a major problem for striving computer geeks. While Web surfers in the US can download YouTube videos to their hearts’ content, their South African brethren pay for every megabyte sent or received (sometimes as much as 80 cents a meg). Businesses and institutions also struggle; universities, for instance, need to block sites such as Facebook, iTunes, and YouTube in order to keep their Internet bandwidth available for scholarly research.
Limited bandwidth also puts up barriers to the “open-source” community – the online testing space for professional and amateur computer experts who want to try out new technology in a supportive e-environment. They build, and collaboratively improve upon, all different types of software, from operating systems to online photo workshops, that anyone can download and use for free. Open-source products are often considered more stable than their commercial equivalents, and are used by many businesses and government groups.