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Not-So-Simple Solution

To help bridge the digital divide, a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a simple Internet search engine specifically for developing countries with poor infrastructure. Unlike current applications, which are built for speed, the TEK, or "Time Equals Knowledge," (tek.sourceforge.net) search engine capitalizes on the developing world’s most reliable resource: ...

To help bridge the digital divide, a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a simple Internet search engine specifically for developing countries with poor infrastructure. Unlike current applications, which are built for speed, the TEK, or "Time Equals Knowledge," (tek.sourceforge.net) search engine capitalizes on the developing world’s most reliable resource: time.

To conduct a search on TEK, a user in Mombassa or Tirana inputs search terms that are sent via e-mail to a server in Boston. The server conducts the search, pares down duplicate content and strips out bulky images, and e-mails the Web pages back to the user in a compressed file. Total turnaround time? Twenty-four hours or longer.

While the TEK approach minimizes the time Internet searchers must spend on notoriously unreliable and expensive Third World network connections, this advantage may not be enough to draw new users to the Web. According to Charles Kenny, an infrastructure economist at the World Bank, rural telecenters and satellite Internet outposts like those operated by Costa Rica’s Lincos project (www.lincos.net) have had mixed results. "The target audience wasn’t interested," Kenny says. "Poor people don’t seem to think that the Internet is the answer to all their problems."

Similar efforts to bring low-cost, portable, bare-bones computers known as Simputers (www.simputer.org) to markets in the developing world, where they were to be shared among communities, have not met initial expectations. Rather, short messaging service (SMS), or text messaging, over cellular telephones has become the communications tool of choice in many developing countries. SMS works, experts say, because it is cheap and straightforward and uses a medium — the cell phone — that is common even in rural Africa.

"You have to be very careful that what you are trying to do fits in the environment that you are placing it in," Kenny says. "Ultimately, though, the only way to see if it will work in practice is to build it and see if people come."

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