I’m often irritated these days when people get into the whole India Vs. China debate or the idea of superpower nations and I could not have put the argument as concisely as Alvin Toffler. I’ve been reading Alvin Toffler’s 2007 book, Revolutionary Wealth.

I’ve still not finished the book and am getting rather bored of its repetitive nature, I did find a few gems though and one of those is what Toffler describes as Waves of Wealth. Discussing history is no simple task but if we think about it in terms of progression we can see that the most important factor in the advancement of mankind has been knowledge; acquiring, continually testing and applying it. I was profoundly struck by his theory that although the competition between rival emerging super economies is narrowing, the methodology used to achieve this is not the same.

Toffler, a futurologist, states that today’s prosperous nations developed into what they are today by following a three-step map. In the first wave, agriculture became the centre of life. Once it was discovered that nature could provide food as required and that a surplus of this product could be kept, a new window for trade had opened up. It also gave rise to various forms of political repression and injustice as a gap emerged between ruling elites and the peasants who worked on the land.

However, the circumstance and perhaps lifestyle were to change as the Industrial age came about. Suddenly even the men that once worked the land were able to learn and operate machinery and possibly given a chance to work in other fields.

The third wave gave rise to the service based economy, which is where we are presently. In the service based economy (the third wave), the first and second waves continue to exist as a parallel economy but the focus and nature of work for most people has changed and given rise to even more roles to be fulfilled. Knowledge is a key component, we use it everyday and we want more of it faster and faster which is where I put forward this idea:

With its very large service based sector, India is clearly riding the third wave. Multinational firms are all taking a slice of the large, cheap and reasonably well trained labor pool. China on the other hand is still following its Maoist form of state control while doubly praising Deng Xiaopeng’s calls for increased financial power. China seems to wielding its power over the world by taking in large manufacturing contracts and providing the benefit of lower costs. There are several issues here however which need to be addressed:

1) China’s rising economy is based on the second wave, a highly developed manufacturing base. Very little to do with actual use of knowledge. Collecting knowledge and having positions available for research and development is far outnumbered in terms of both capital investment and the number of firms showing interest by firms in the manufacturing sector.

2) Rising financial freedom must by some definition try to free itself from the bizarre hybrid mechanism of communist and capitalist ideologies, in other words, people should feel the strain of government control and opt to invest Chinese capital in other countries. Who says “Made In China” is the beginning and the end of it?

3) Are we really happy with these service and manufacturing monopolies? Why doesn’t Africa play some role yet?

I like the concept of FOSS, you know the community spirit that encourages contributions, etc but I have yet to see any major open source application which brings productivity directly into the hands of users. Instead what I see is that market completely shadowed by those companies who DO charge a price and provide excellent tools for getting things done like Apple or Microsoft (Office anybody?). There is something fundamentally wrong with open-source in terms of a business model. I can’t really say it without being vague. But as much as open-source is supposed to be good for “everybody”, everyone still needs to get a piece of the money pie. You can’t get something done for free without it being sub par – it’s just the rule of economics and to say that open-source developers don’t care about money is just a dirty old lie. Sure, you can rely on ultra slick distribution channels to reduce the end cost much like Wal-Mart, but to charge nothing is not a workable concept.

In fact, this reminds me of even more unsuccessful open-source initiatives. A couple of years back we saw the release of the Freedom Toaster in South Africa. It was a by-product of the Shuttleworth Foundation. It was a standalone kiosk that would burn software images on CDs/DVDs. I mentioned this briefly somewhere else before (perhaps it was on Digg) but I’ll have to say it again. The device was pretty interesting and there was no doubt that it would have all the geeks and nerds out their drooling just to be able to burn through it…easy as pie. But once the novelty factor wore off, it became clear to many people out there that is not what the market needed.

Let me explain, South Africa has undergone many changes sinces the first democratic elections in 1994. Some would say it has completely revolutionized the speed of business in the country and has opened many pathways for international brands and firms to settle, and along with all this wealth and job creation there has been an active role to provide education for ordinary South Africans. This is what the country really needs if it is to successfully carry on it’s economic leadership role in the continent. Not to diverge, the Freedom Toaster was created to allow easier access to software, but not just any kind of software but free software. The only problem is that they forgot one small little detail: there’s no market! The whole idea was to provide free software in such a way that the lack of ADSL/Cable internet would not be seen as a barrier to people using open-source material. But in a country where the population is still coming to terms with the so-called IT revolution, the last thing they need is some unfamiliar environment which they can neither benefit from nor use. It’s like you are providing all the petrol and diesel in the world yet you have no cars, boats or trains to use it up. Technology should reinforce the processes and must always have a beneficial outcome, it’s not just technology for the sake of it.

In fact, if any organization were to follow the path of education in terms computer technologies, I’d say they should train people to use what’s most accessible to them, and that would most likely be Microsoft or Apple technologies (Office, anybody?). After all, who wants to learn all this UNIX/Linux material if it cannot help the situation. Looking at the business side of the Freedom Toaster, it’s hard to ever see this project reach a sizable ROI. And one must try to understand that ROI doesn’t always have to be measure in monetary terms. It could be measure as how many Freedom Toaster vs. how many rural people (or people who need it the most) get it. In fact, by the time the Freedom Toaster catches the attention of the average South African, ADSL and broadband coverage will be much greater and hence it will defy the point of having the kiosk anyway. If anything, I’d say the OLPC (One-Laptop-Per-Child) project is looking way more interesting and fitting.

Let me sum this up:

– People need to interact with technologies they will most likely use

– Open-source permeation/adoption rates are way below what they should be for success

– Only geeks and enthusiasts should be interested in this, and even then most have good internet access

– Freedom Toaster: Not a success and way overdue