Throwing Money at Shiny and Worthless Technology

The Lebanese government is buying technology that nobody wants for unlucky students


– Oh no, that thing has Intel inside –

Intel, the glorious microchip maker, is facing an existential problem. It was the king of the world powering big PCs that sit on your desktop, but lately it is losing market share because both iPads and Android tablets skipped its chips in favor of smaller, lower-powered competitors like ARM. The company finds itself is in a bind: Tablets are the future and Intel has lost the tablet war.

Intel had to find a way to get into the tablet market, but people only want to buy iPads and Android-powered ones. So Intel surrendered the consumer market altogether in favor of enterprise “solutions”, like its new Intel learning series “solution” for education, which relies on tablets nobody heard of with operating systems nobody heard of running proprietary education software nobody heard of. To sell those, Intel was looking for suckers, and in minister Nicolas Sehnaoui, it found the perfect sucker.

Students in America are getting iPads, students in Africa are getting Kindles, but students in Lebanon will be getting MANDRIVAs.

Why everybody loses, except Intel and Sehnaoui

The technology is not necessarily bad, but it is untested and it doesn’t have wide market adoption. This means it doesn’t have a rich ecosystem of content (like books), and it means that books that are already there will be expensive and uncompetitive. Moreover, the tablets will be harder to fix because your average corner tech shop has no experience in dealing with MANDRIVAs. Compare that to iPads and Kindles which not only have hundreds of thousands of standard books and textbooks, but they also make it easy for teachers and publishers to create their own books cheaply.

The latest deal benefits Intel: The company gets to sell tablets that nobody wants and provide expensive software “solutions” that doesn’t have any competitors. It also gets to sign maintenance agreements with the Lebanese government and it will hold the keys to every book that will be published on its platform.

The latest deal benefits Minister Sehnaoui. He gets to boast to the world that he’s bringing “tablets” and technology to Lebanese students. He gets to pretend that he’s making Lebanon some sort of a high-tech destination with incredibly absurd boasts like this one: “We are trying to make the digital economy a mainstay of job creation and service export to place Lebanon at the crossroads of civilizations and religions, and a platform to attract international companies”

Everyone else loses: Tax payers and donors for paying for this junk, and students who will eventually ignore this useless thing…

  • Z. H.

    I didn’t get the MADRIVA thing; is it a software or a hardware?

    After ploughing through some reviews, I am almost certain that it is a Linux-based operating system (https://ilsap.intelflexplus.com/en/node/2524)

    But definitely unheard-of shenanigan and I’d say extremely cost-ineffective and expensive after-sales service involved.

    And me who thought I couldn’t dislike that toad-face minister any more.

  • F.H.

    Way, way to early to judge the initiative:
    1- Affordable tablets are better than no tablets. If they are looking to digitize education and make it easier on kids, then the basic necessities are enough. Kids will not need their tablets to play Infinity Blade II with HD graphics. They need it to study, and if the new tablet does the job, then that’s enough
    2- When you talk about content, Amazon do not sell their books / media to Lebanese credit card holders. I assume the required books will be provided through special agreements with publishers. Again, since that is what the tablet is required for, then you don’t need other media
    3- In terms of maintenance costs, where “you won’t be able to find anyone that can fix it”, I’m sure they would have included a clause in their MOU where Intel would provide all maintenance services. And since it is part of a large deal, it is going to be much cheaper than going to a random store and getting a quick fix
    4- Finally, in terms of content creation by the teachers, this argument does not hold at all. All eReaders are equipped to read similar files. I find it highly doubtful that Intel would not have equipped theirs with standard formats (epub, pdf, mobi). And software for creating such content are widely available

    In short, I think a lot of the arguments in here do not hold, and I think it is way too early to judge this initiative. The best indication of how this would go is to set up a pilot at a school and run it for a short period, then assess the results. Until then, I am (mostly) in favor of this initiative.

    • http://www.blogbaladi.com Najib

      F.H,
      1- Not at all. If the tables are outdated or not on the same line as today’s technology, and lack all the things Mustafa mentioned and u must have missed, then it’s a waste of money. We don’t want to get stuck with old tablets 5-10 years from now simply because it’s better than no tablets.

      2- This is temporary and could change any second, plus there are tons of other sources. The student holding that tablet should be able to acquire books without special agreements.

      3- We’ve seen how quick and efficient companies are in Lebanon in terms of support. If Intel is not happy with its tablets worldwide, it will probably drop them and stop their support at some point.

      4- It all comes back to the tablet being powered with a popular software and universally used systems. I don’t know one single person that has an Intel tablet.

      In short, you should consider the points Mustafa mentioned and see if we can improve on the deal or reconsider it before implementing it and regretting it later.

      • F.H.

        I think I’ve answered those comments in the below. If not, let me know

  • Raja

    F.H. has the gist of it. Writer’s an idiot or someone who has political motive to discredit Sehnaoui. Probably both.

    Neither google(or any android vendor that I know of) or apple provide services on the scale such an initiative would need. If you lack the in-house talent to manage an android or ios solution(or government probably does) then it makes sense to go with a big firm, ie intel.

    Also, mandriva is a well-known linux distribution[1](used to be, at least), it is by no means proprietary, as the author claims. In fact, it’s the very opposite of that. Also, books and any content aside from programs are accessible regardless of platform. The only advantage an established ecosystem has is the abundance of apps, not actual content.

    The author’s point on intel needing to break into the tablet market is pretty much on target, but it actually argues against his later point on high cost. Intel has an incentive to sell its tablets even at a loss to gain a foothold in the market. Chances are, they offered the cheapest deal out of all the alternatives that were considered and so were picked.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandriva_Linux

    • 3antar

      Actually yeah, if you read his previous posts, you’ll see it’s mostly just unproven poorly sourced rants done by someone blinded with sectarian hatred. It’s really hard to find objective bloggers in Lebanon these days.

      • http://www.blogbaladi.com Najib

        I read his previous posts. Are you sure you are on the right blog? Point to me one sectarian hateful post please.

    • http://www.blogbaladi.com Najib

      Raja,
      I wish you had not stated “idiot” in your early statement as it discredits the rest of your comment. Intel has admitted itself that it’s failing to go in the tablet market and giving students tablets that don’t have an established ecosystem is something you might want to reconsider as they will be making use of this app for years.

      • Robot

        Why use tablets in the first place. Even engineers don’t need them!

      • Raja

        Yeah, sorry about that, I have a tendency to get riled up by people who attack other people’s initiatives at making this country better because they happen to be from an opposing party. And that’s what this post felt like. You wouldn’t call Sehnaoui “the perfect sucker” otherwise.

        I don’t follow much politics, but I’ve seen him talk(I think it was the 3G pilot for students) and he didn’t seem like someone you’d so easily label a sucker. This might be a mistake but it wouldn’t be such an easy and obvious one.

        In my defence, though, I said “idiot or someone who has political motive to discredit Sehnaoui”. The “or ..” should show you where I’m coming from. I think all people who discredit the initiatives of others because of political motives are idiots.

    • http://www.blogbaladi.com Najib

      Raja,
      Why assume things that you cannot prove? I’ve been following Mustapha for quite a while and he’s as objective as they come when it comes to such initiatives. There is nothing in any of his previous posts that suggests he has a thing for this or against that. Added to that, if you feel he is attacking Sehnaoi because of his political affiliation, you are not doing any better yourself by going all defensive that way.

      The perfect sucker is meant as in go to the easy deal and exploit it to enhance your image to the public. Don’t go too far.

      “In my defence, though, I said “idiot or someone who has political motive to discredit Sehnaoui”. The “or ..” should show you where I’m coming from. I think all people who discredit the initiatives of others because of political motives are idiots.”

      Again, you are not doing better by attacking him that way. You could have simply debated his arguments and proved him wrong. Sinking to such a low level of discussions does not help getting anywhere. Trust me if he’s wrong about what he posted, he will acknowledge it and thank you.

      Let’s not make assumptions on people before knowing them.

      • Mustapha

        Raja,

        Feel free to look through the archives to find out that I criticize politicians from all over the Lebanese spectrum.

        But the reason I call Sehnaoui a sucker is because I believe he’s a tech poseur… He keeps making all these big promises about Lebanon becoming a regional technology heavyweight despite us being light years behind Jordan and Israel.. And not only that, his ministry officials make statements that show a complete lack of understanding for the modern requirements of internet use.

      • Raja

        Well, I’ve looked through the archive a bit. And yes, I can’t detect any obvious bias towards one or the other side. In fact if there’s any bias it’s “anti lebanese-politicians”, something I can actually relate to.

        If I’m in any way biased politically it’s probably against sehnaoui than with(I might have a slight leaning to the other side of the current political spectrum and it’s mostly due to my fear of the other side’s agenda for the country). I also don’t follow politics much in day to day specifics(I read and debate a lot on larger regional and historical patterns though) so it’s entirely possible that I’ve formed wrong opinions on certain politicians. However, for some reason, Sehnaoui is one of the few politicos that I’ve pegged as “slightly positive” in terms of my impression of him. That, however, has got nothing to do with my reaction to the article itself.

        Essentially, I’m all for any initiative that’ll get computers, any computers, into the hands of young students. And honestly I’d *much* rather it’s something that runs linux than more closed ecosystems(iOS, android — Oh and before anyone says android isn’t closed, it’s definitely more so than a generic linux system) even if that means a less rich app ecosystem. I am more interested in the educational value derived than the overall value. I’d want students to have something that they can tinker with, something that’s not perfect and “has an app for everything” that they’ll need to figure out solutions for themselves. I guess that just stems from the fact that I’m a programmer and I think the skills I have, which I learned over years of tinkering ever since I was ten-ish, are incredibly empowering in today’s increasingly digital world. Furthermore, if Lebanon is to become a tech hub for the region it needs to build more talent especially in software engineering. So far, in all 3 jobs I’ve gone through there has always been a demand for more talented programmers and it’s extremely hard to find them.

        So the reaction I had(and I apologize for the name-calling, it was inappropriate) stems from the fact that I see someone trying to get technology(even if maybe it isn’t the *optimal* choice) into the hands of kids being called “the perfect sucker” for what I, wrongly, interpreted to be political reasons.

  • romeo

    This falls under the category of “it is better to do something than nothing”. I wish we could get more details about the RFP / transaction / contract…

    In any case, it seems to be a “pilot” rather than a full-fledged deployment of the technology. Naharnet article quotes Minister Diab saying “…we will present it before local and international donor bodies in a hope they would give a hand in the plan”.

    Tablet technology is moving very fast. personally, I am pinning my hopes on low-cost tablets that will eventually flood the market…then schools (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aakash_%28tablet%29)

    Pilot projects such as these, no matter how problematic, allow us to gather the true requirements of the schools and kids.

    The lessons learned will be invaluable for the next round fo technology.

  • rubber ducky

    increasingly, I have come to take Mustafa as the As’ad AbuKhalil of the other camp. rash judgments that are skin deep, usage of expletives (let’s count them: junk, sucker, useless,etc.) how can anyone take you seriously mustafa? god knows i don’t.

    • Bruna

      Sorry but what are you guys talking about? Are you just arguing for the sake of argument? I work in the field of education and we do remedial education for children in public schools and I can tell you that the level of our education and the level of skill of our teachers is sub par to say the least. Our children learn fact after fact and no one is teaching them how to THINK and if you don’t beleive me, please turn on the news.
      Personally, and I’m sure a lot would agree, I would prefer that our children learn “ta7t el sendyeneh” how to think critically and how to be engaged learners than another lame excuse of a lesson on some fancy gadget. But education reforms take time and Sehnaoui nor any other single individual could take the credit for it and that, by its very nature, makes it exactly the opposite of the kind of ventures that politicians have the incentive to take on.

      • F.H.

        Nobody is arguing against that. My point simply was to defend the current choice of tablets against others. Nobody talked about reforming education. We all agree that education reform takes a lot more than tablets. Yet neither the author nor people who commented talked about education reform. And I highly doubt the minister of Telecommunications is aiming to reform education, especially not through tablets

      • Bruna

        Ok you’re right about that. In that case I’m just trying to step back for a minute because I really think the underlying issue is a lot more important that this petty debacle and it seems to me just another way that our government hides behind its finger.

    • http://www.blogbaladi.com Najib

      the As’ad AbuKhalil ???? I am sorry but how can anyone take you seriously with a statement like that?

  • Sam

    Guys… the whole article is based on a wrong argument. 1st of all is it an Android Tablet and not Madriava !! Two it is not MOT who is buying it, Both Alfa and Touch are buying these to sell to young lebanese with subsidized data rate to allow very low cost Internet access via 3G and WiFi and also plenty of high quality content. Both Operators backed with Intel support will test the market with the 1st phase of 15,000 tablets and based on the uptake decide on ramping this up or modifying the solution. Bottom line, the market will determine whether the success of this product and then we can all judge.

    • http://www.blogbaladi.com Najib

      Sam,
      Do you have any links backing this? What will be the specs of the tablets?

      • Sam

        yes.. check this article that details the whole Project ( at the end they mention some of the specification of the Tablet and that it is running Android )
        http://www.al-akhbar.com/node/169854

  • http://lemondedejimmy.blogspot.com [ j i m m y ]

    mustafa, i think you’re probably jumping the gun too fast on this one. notwithstanding the stellar capacity of lebanese politicians to splurge government money on utterly useless crap, i wouldn’t agree with your findings and conclusions until i’ve read a good comparative study of how this item compares to other specialized educational tools, and until i’ve understood how well (or badly) planned this initiative is. who’s behind it? what’s its scale? what are the tools provided? etc.

    emerging educational tools, especially in developing countries, have a tremendous potential to advance education and leapfrog development. these projects are usually extremely complex, involving technology, intellectual property rights, and continued support and funding. they also require strong championing by project sponsors. lebanon is hardly the right environment for any of these requisites, but i again wouldn’t call this a disaster until i’ve read some detailed analysis of it.

  • Mustapha

    Hey F.H

    1- Are affordable tablets really better than no tablets? I really doubt that, a 300$ tablet not being used is 300$ that could have been used somewhere else.

    2- Amazon also doesn’t sell kindles to Ghanaian credit cards, but it reached an arrangement with an education NGO to provide Ghanaian kids with hundreds of kindles. That’s how pilot programs are done, not by buying 15,000 devices with no mass-market appeal.

    3- The whole point of having market solutions (like the ecosystems of Amazon, Apple or Google), is to avoid the “large deals” which include needless maintenance costs and bureaucracy.

    4- You are ignoring an important player: The publishers. They will not allow for “standard” and “free” versions of their books to be readily available on random open source tablets. They want their DRM.

    • F.H.

      1- If the goal is to use the tablet for education, and if the provided tablet can do the job, then yes. If the goal, for example, is to digitize books, then yes, it is enough. No need for “mass-market appeal” devices, especially when they’re there to fill specific needs

      2- I am not talking about the device, but about the content

      3- Large deals do not necessarily entail needless maintenance costs and bureaucracy. It depends on the MOU signed

      4- I agree, and that does not have much to do with the hardware itself. My point was that if teachers want to create their own content, they can still do so

  • Mustapha

    Jimmy,

    I understand your need for more details and research, but this is one of those things that smell bad from the outset.

    If it was really like you said, a complex project that involved educators and NGOs and digital right holders, those parties would have been present or at least mentioned in the announcement.

    To someone like me who has been following tablet news and the implementation of tablets in the education sector, this looks like a sketchy deal between a supplier that doesn’t have buyers and a government eager to throw money at a white elephant to look good..

    • Sam

      You need to need to separate between the Tablets provided for free to the Ministry of Education for piloting this technology in the education delivery and prep. the teacher and the school for that , and this is a very lengthy process. Versus the commercial part of the project where Alfa and Touch has tendered out to buy Tablets along with content from top vendors to package them to young lebanese students to be used outside the school , accessing Internet and a bunch of good quality content.
      http://www.al-akhbar.com/node/169854

  • emile

    F.H.

    1- If you’re just giving tablets for the sake of giving tablets and gloating about it in the media, then yeah, a cheap tablet is better than no tablet. If you want the tablets to used and useful, you need tablets with a good ecosystem.

    2- Amazon accepts Lebanese credit cards for some books, so does apple and google. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the for our minister to negotiate with amazon, apple or google a deal and publishers to make books available to all lebanese shoppers.

    3- Having a monopoly on support is never much cheaper than having any corner shop being able to fix it, but the big danger here is having intel drop support for the platform altogether. Given their track record this is very probable.

    4- Ebook formats are not completely open and interoperable. Especially when it comes to educational material and interactive features they use. Apple’s ibook creator’s best features are proprietary. So are some of amazon’s mobi features.

    • F.H.

      1- If the goal is specific to education, then no, you don’t really need a good ecosystem. You are making the assumption that they have jumped into it without having studied how they can use it. Unless you know what they have done, then you can’t jump to the conclusion that the tablet does not fulfill the educational needs which it was supposed to fulfill

      2- It is not (exclusively) Sehnaoui’s goal to talk to amazon and other players to allow the purchase of books. We do not have the regulations. Given our government’s pace, this would take a huge amount of time, and would delay initiatives such as this

      3- If the MOU is signed with appropriate SLAs, then even if they discontinue, they still have to provide maintenance

      4- Agreed, but I doubt the tablet in question only reads .pdf or other such files

  • Observer

    Mustapha,

    You should try and get this across to Sehnaoui through Facebook or Twitter.

    I think he takes his job seriously and is trying his best.

  • burger

    Mustapha,
    I work in the IT industry, both Mandriva and Intel are my clients. Your latest blog post is pretty much wrong on all points and arguments (facts, not opinion). If you are interested in discussing it (and maybe post a new blog post about it, send me an e-mail and we can discuss it over the phone).

    • Mustapha

      Please email me the facts and I will post an update: beirutspring at gmail dot com

  • Anonymous

    I think you were too harsh, and you didn’t clearly mention in your post if Mandriva was a hardware of software solution.

    Mandriva is a Linux based OS, which means it benefits from a wealth of open source software, that are free, compared to iOS of android applications that need to be bought and installed on the tablets.

    Another point is that this OS can run on a wide range of tablets, that are also very cheap compared to apple or other manufacturers.

    The last point, but the most important I think, is that iTunes doesn’t allow the lebanese market to buy books or tunes, only apps, so it’s pretty much useless here in Lebanon in terms of buying educational content.

    Same thing for the Kindle. Ask the many who got sucked into buying a Kindle last Xmas, and can’t buy any ebook from the store.

    I think it would have been kinda stupid to provide students with devices that can’t be filled with content.

    What would you have done at their place?

  • Craig

    Fear not, Apple was relegated to the education sector and the arts for 20 years as professionals who actually used their computers to be productive opted for the PC instead. That’s just how things work. And look at Apple now? Don’t be so quick to pronounce winners and losers :)

    By the way, I think somebody would have to be retarded to willingly use an operating system made by Google. Google is the most disreputable software company in the history of computing. But nobody ever claimed there was a shortage of retards in the world, did they?

  • Craig

    PS:

    Tablets are the future…

    That may be true, but current tablets are about as useful for me as a boat anchor. I need one that’s three feet across and can do everything my current desktop system can do, but better. Whenever somebody makes one like that, I’ll be all over it. In the meantime, I’ll leave tablets to the people who only use computers for logging onto facebook and watching porn while they are supposed to be working.

    …and Intel has lost the tablet war.

    It’s early days. Apples sporting Motorola processors were dominant in home computing until the mid 1980s. By 1990 Apple was at death’s door. Things change, and the market is fickle. Apple is back with a vengeance and Motorola is owned by a search engine vendor, employed to make cell phone chips.

  • http://twitter.com/MyriamKharma Myriam Kharma (@MyriamKharma)

    Hello, :)
    Do you have some additional references to share?
    Thanks!

  • OldHand

    As usual the Lebanese people and their goverment are at the cutting edge:

    Baathism, Nasserism, MANDRIVA (catchy name!) and 56K download speeds are the FUTURE.

  • Craig

    If it was really about education tools they’d just use low end desktops like schools here in the US do. It’s going to be many years before there’s as much educational material available for tablets as there are for existing PCs. I think it’s more about trying to make kids up to date on the latest and greatest tech, or at least make it seem as if they are. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I wish they’d been doing that when I was a kid. Unfortunately for me, they weren’t even doing that when I was in college. I built my own PC from parts years before any of the schools in Southern California moved away from mainframes and minicomputers, and I had to teach myself how to do programming on a PC because all the universities thought PCs were toys.

    I’d like to think there’s a different mentality in higher education now, but I really don’t believe it to be honest. They always go with what they think is in demand in the real world in the present and what will be in demand in the future, and they always get it wrong because academics don’t love or work in the real world.

    It’s really NOT that big a deal, though. The bright kids will pick it up on their own, either on their own time or at the workplace.

  • Craig

    Somehow my last comment got dropped in at the bottom of the page. Was intended to be a reply to this comment:

    [ j i m m y ] says:
    October 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm

  • Z. H.

    Some of you are not nice at all and even cheap, because posting replies to different posts doesn’t contribute to enrich the current argument.

    If you just want to have a go at slandering, libeling or attempting to mislabel the guy, go ahead and do it, but it’s truly pointless and counter productive.

  • Bruna

    This is like the smoking ban for me. Same short-sighted logic that is based on self-advertising hiding under the sexy veil of rhetoric. Priorities like corruption, monopolies,health care and education suffocate and are forgotten under the sexy headlines of iPads and smoke-free pubs. Bleh….