Are Mobile Phones the Winner?
February's Technology Salon was on the (false) dichotomy of mobiles versus computers in development. Thankfully due to the high caliber of all the attendees, we were able to establish and move quickly past the problem that so often plagues the actual projects and "real world" debates - which is better? Some people will claim mobile phones are better due to their low barriers to entry, but then you see low-cost computing and netbooks providing that same promise to computers. Others will argue that you'll never write a school paper on a cell phone.
The reality is, the entire frame of this argument is off on every possible angle.
First, there are clear cases where one technology is better suited to a task than another. I'd no more write long papers on a cell phone than I would carry around a laptop to use as a personal communications device. However there's a large chunk of tasks where either tool will suffice, and which "should" be used is more a factor of the local conditions than the features of any one technology.
Secondly -- and more importantly -- this discussion is tool-centric. We have a hammer (two, in this case) and are going around the development landscape searching for nails we can drive home, and it's a race between the two hammers to see who can hit the most nails. This is inherently the wrong way to apply ICT in development.
We shouldn't be arguing about mobiles vs computers, or even OLPC XOs vs Intel ClassMates, or Windows vs Linux, we should be arguing about specific problems in development, what tools could help, how, and for what costs (training time, implementation and infrastucture gotchas, as well as equipment costs).
Read this summary of the MILLEE project for a great example mobile phones within a language-learning project:
At first, Matt was skeptical about how well the games would work on a mobile phone. "I think the biggest problem with a cell phone is it has a very small screen... And you have a very small keypad. There's limited information you can display," he said. However, in several pilot studies the games worked surprisingly well. In one study, students consistently showed better English skills on tests after playing the game. "We did not expect them to learn so fast," said Matt, noting that even some of the adults in the village wanted to use the mobile phone games. "It was interesting because some of their mothers would come and would say they wanted to enroll in the programs instead of their kids."