The Digital Divide

Definition : The difference in opportunities available to people who have access to modern information technology and those who do not  (MSN Encata)

Traditionally the working poor and homeless have been at a big disadvantage by not having access to the technology that is available. The disadvantages are many, lack of access to information and being less competitive in the job market are two of the most significant.

Projects like CLIC (Computers for Low Income Calgarians) operated by the Calgary Drop-In Centre have helped to bridge the gap by giving people free computers. This was a good start, but there was still some important building blocks missing.

The computers available through the CLIC program are generally not the latest generation; many are in the 500mz range whereas most new systems are in the 2500-3500mz range, making them considerably faster and more capable of running programs.

The other important building block is that of software. By far the most common software found in businesses is Microsoft Office; this includes a word processor and spreadsheet program. Microsoft Office retails for several hundred dollars, putting it out of reach to the working poor.

There have been some important shifts in the computer industry of late that will have a significant effect on the Digital Divide. The almost blanket coverage of Internet access via cable and DSL at a reasonable price now puts high speed access within most peoples budget. The advent of Wi-Fi in urban areas also offers the possibility of very low cost, or even free internet access.

Maybe the most significant change is happening on the Internet its self. Since the early 1980’s and the arrival of the Personal Computer the strategy had been to create ever increasingly complex software to run on it. This started a sort of arms race between the hardware and software companies. Bigger programs needed faster hardware.

Once again the Low Income sector finds themselves at a disadvantage, the 500mz computer supplied by the CLIC program cannot run the latest versions of the programs.

Over the past year there has been a significant shift within the computer community. I like to refer to it as the ‘what is old is new again’ theory. Prior to the advent of the Personal Computer the strategy was to have all of the computer power in one centralized place, commonly called a Mainframe, and to use terminals to access the central location. These terminals were often called ‘dumb terminals’ because they had no processing power of their own, they merely allowed the user to enter information and display results.

The industry once again seems to be heading back toward the centralization concept, more and more programs are appearing as web based, moving the need for computer power from the users computer to the computer hosting the web site.

This trend started with web based email. All of the storage and processing is performed on the server, the user can access his or her email from any computer that has internet access. Many of these web based email systems also include address books and calendaring systems. This removes the need for a program such as Microsoft Outlook.

One of the more interesting companies working toward a centralized system is Google. Google started as a search engine and has grown into many other areas, some of which have a very direct bearing on the digital divide.

Google’s free email system (Gmail) gives each user 2.7 gigabytes of storage. This is a huge amount of space, typing at 20 words a minute 24 hours a day it would take over 45 years to fill it up.

Their recently released calendar function seems to be in direct competition with Microsoft Outlook, the big advantage with Google’s version is you can access your calendar from any internet computer.

Google announced Google pages in Febuary/06, this is a free web hosting facility. Everyone can now host his or her own homepage. It is designed for either the novice or the expert. At the novice level anyone can create a professional looking web page with no technical knowlege.

Maybe the most significant event for the digital divide occurred in late March/06 with Google’s purchase of a small Silicon Valley software company called Upstartle. Upstartle was the creator of a web based Word processor. What sets this word processor above the others is its ability to read and write Microsoft Word documents.

The Writely word processor was quickly followed up by a spreadsheet offering. While it is not as feature rich as Microsoft Excel, it does have some advantages, easy to access, and easy to share with other users being 2 huge ones.

It is impossible to predict the future, but based on Google’s actions to date it would seem reasonable that we are going to see at least one more important feature added to their current offerings, a generalized data repository.

The impact on the digital divide will be enormous as these new emerging technologies become mainstream. With the web-based philosophy it does not matter if you have a new or old computer, the only important thing is that you have Internet access.

I think there are some very exiciting projects occuring online. Here is a list of some of my favorites.

Many public access systems will not allow you download software. So do not be suprised if you can not install msn chat, yahoo chat, mirc, etc. The good news is..... there are always a way around this problem. MSN offers a web based solution. This will allow you to access messenger withouth needing to download anything.

If MIRC is your favorite then you should do a google search on "web mirc", you will find that there are many hits, yes you can access IRC from the web. It may take some time to find a perfect solution, but they are out there.

In summary, the world is a changing place. Maybe the Digital Divide is getting narrower, maybe it is close to being a phrase that is no longer in the dictionary.