Endless opportunities

Imagine a tiny computer that contains a wealth of knowledge, as easy to use as your mobile phone – you’ve just visualised the next big thing in the tech world.

Like many great ideas, Endless was the result of taking time to mull over an issue. Its founder and CEO Matt Dalio was traveling in Pune, India, when he observed that smartphones and televisions were literally everywhere. This led him to realise that if you take a smartphone processor and make the television the monitor then you could build the world’s first truly affordable, high-quality PC.

He made the same observations while traveling through Latin America and Southeast Asia, but over time he realized that reducing the price of computers might not be enough. There are 2.5 billion people in the world who have access to computers, leaving 5 billion who do not and for over half of them, it’s not because they can’t afford it. Computers are expensive, but this isn’t the most important issue – in most locations people could get loans to pay for it and the cheapest laptop is now around $350.

Alejandro Farfán, General Manager for Endless Central America & Caribbean, takes up the story, explaining the three main barriers to emerging markets embracing computers. “Phones are intuitive and easy to use, where computers are not – for example, we had people saying to us ‘why do I need to double click on a computer when I can just do one click on my phone?’

“There was also a real fear of breaking it (the computer) if they didn’t know how to use it and so they weren’t prepared to make such a big investment just in case. And if you don’t have access to the Internet, then you’re lost.”

The biggest challenge of the three was how to connect all these people to the Internet. They approached the largest American Internet provider to ask for free internet to go with the system they were developing and they were, unsurprisingly, turned down. Undaunted, they went off to think more carefully about how to overcome this problem.

“It’s not that people in remote villages don’t use computers, they do,” says Alejandro, who was born and raised in Guatemala. “The children go to internet cafes every day to do their homework, for example.” When he did his own homework in the days before Internet cafes, Alejandro had his own version of the Internet – DVD encyclopedias borrowed from a neighbour.

And it was this memory from 20 years ago that helped overcome the issue of a lack of Internet connection. Speaking with his colleagues, they realised there were many organisations, such as the Khan Academy, Duolingo and Ivy League colleges in the US who have content freely available if you have a computer and Internet access so why not download all of this?

So, they set about building a computer that was as easy to use as a smartphone, had pre-loaded content and could be plugged into a television. It was no small task and it’s only now, four years later, that they have a product they’re proud of. As part of this research, they asked 1,000s of people what they would find useful and created a list of over 100 creative materials, tools and applications, including Open Office, GIMP ( a free open-access alternative to Photoshop), 45 encyclopedias, video tutorials and 43 games (mostly educational). “It’s a lot of content inside a little box,” says Alejandro.

Smartphones contain an extremely powerful computer: it’s actually 2,000 times more powerful than the one that took Apollo II to the moon. The Endless team worked out how to manufacture a chip that previously cost several hundred dollars for just $35 and used this to turn a phone into a laptop computer. This can then be plugged into a television, creating a computer with an operating system as easy to use as a smartphone.

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“We all have a need to be connected,” explains Alejandro. “Many people don’t even have a refrigerator and yet they are still buying phones and televisions. I went to visit some growers in rural Guatemala and I couldn’t get them to understand that it might be better to buy a fridge before a tv. One of them said to me ‘I get the money I earn that day, go to the local shop and buy the food I need for that day. I don’t need a fridge. The tv is entertainment for my whole family and others within the community – we watch it together – it’s our window to the world.’ I learnt things the hard way that day – he was totally right. I’ll never forget it.”

Endless began four years ago in Silicon Valley, USA. “We were born in the Valley because it attracts the best talent in this field, but our ethos didn’t really align with the regular start-ups there and we wanted our work to touch the whole world,” explains Alejandro. “All the arrows were pointing towards Guatemala – what they saw there was a place where a lot of people were open to trying new things.”

They first employed a developer, who just happened to be Alejandro’s older brother, Fernando. Alejandro was already a successful entrepreneur with his own start-up and  was in the office when the boss was lamenting how they just couldn’t find anyone to fill the manager’s position. A couple of hours later, he was in.

Taking a lead from the SOLE ethos, Endless  provided one computer per classroom to schools in Guatemala and told teachers to feel free to use it as they saw fit. Alejandro told me about one teacher who, after teaching herself using this computer, was able to teach a specific maths topic with confidence for the first time in her teaching career. “It’s not a situation where one person owns this computer and therefore holds all the information – it’s changing the way they teach as well as the way students learn,” he says. “I love being part of the same thing that helped me evolve.”

Currently, there are 10,000 students who have access to one of these computers in Guatemala but the Minister for Education has just approved funding to reach 100,000. Endless computers are also being used in refugee camps in Jordan and in favelas and schools in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico and Nicaragua.

Endless’ CEO, Matt, met Sugata a year ago and they have been talking about how best to combine these computers with SOLE. One of the most challenging aspects of our most remote Indian locations is the unreliable internet connectivity and it’s soul-destroying to think of children walking for miles to the labs, only to find that the Internet is down again. At least with an Endless computer, they would still be able to do their homework!

They are just about to launch a bundle which will include mobile internet connection for under $10 a month for schools, with unlimited access to certain sites such as Code.org and Duolingo.

There are some big hitters on their team – many have come from Twitter and Google because they believe in what Endless is doing. Future plans are to expand across Central America, South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and to add to existing offices in Mexico, Brazil and China.

Endless is also developing a tool that will allow anyone to create new content without any knowledge of programming. It’s currently a closed operating system to prevent the system crashing but they are planning to open it up at the end of this year.

“We’re aiming for open source technology that we can give back to the community – we’re only tech aware because of what we’ve learnt from others, so it’s only right it should go full circle,” says Alejandro. “This will allow people to customise and personalise their experience.”

A small academy in San Juan Comalapain, in Chimaltenango state, Guatemala, is trialling the use of Endless computers in a SOLE environment and we hope to catch up with them at a later date to find out how they’re getting on.