Global Themes

On Globalization & Venture Capital

Has the $100 PC finally arrived?

In one of its recent editions, (12th Feb ’07) Newsweek carried a cover story on “The $100 Un-PC” and how a product like this might fundamentally transform communities in Asia and Africa

Such a device may hold the key to connecting the next billion people to the internet (I know the same thing has been said of cell-phones but I still believe that given a choice (“choice” is important) a lot more people would prefer the larger display (and better user interface) of a computer for browsing, communicating and online commerce.

The story mentioned two prominent approaches – the first by an Indian start-up called Novatium which has pioneered a simple computer using cell-phone chips that connects to a TV set (and does away with hard-disk drive, extensive memory and pre-packaged software).

novanetpc.jpg           The appeal of the device is in its simplicity – the fact that it cannot do too many things actually becomes a plus – and large number of TV-owning families means that the only remaining barrier to go online will be a phone line (now available for less than $5 and within a week in most urban areas in India).

In fact after reading about the device, I am tempted to try one myself – and if it works – buy one for my parents.

Rajesh Jain, co-founder and Chairman of Novatium has thought up an attractive business model to go with the concept. He plans to offer the device as part of a lease deal (with supporting hardware, an internet connection, some application software and service) for $10 a month – at which point, I can see it will effectively penetrate the 300m ~ 400m middle class.

In contrast to Novatium’s thin-client model, the MIT effort – led by Nicholas Negroponte – has targeted the production of a laptop that will be as close to one that you and I use – except at a fraction of the cost. While this approach has its merits (it does not depend on the network for being fully functional) its performance may not be satisfactory and it may not be able to harness the full power of the network/internet.

 mit-laptop.jpg                While both the approaches have their pros and cons, if Novatium is able to get on a network (or find a broadband network) that can deliver the connectivity required for the thin-client business model to really work, its cost, ease of use and business model will, I think, trump MIT’s approach…

How can one have such a stable, omnipresent broadband network quickly? One way could be WiMax – which according to a recent IHT article might lead to as many as 10m-20m broadband subscribers in India within the next 3 years (compared to less than a million in 2006) – wouldn’t that be wonderful?

February 17th, 2007 Posted by | Emerging Markets, India | 3 comments

3 Comments »

  1. I think that one usage area that should definitely be looked at to have far reaching results is the area of Teacher Education. The more the teachers become familiar with technology and use technology to teach, the easier it would be for the students to start using computers. We are not merely talking about mid-market schools in A and B type cities but schools in small towns and villages.

    Comment by Akhil | February 18, 2007

  2. Shantanu, I think the $100 mark is more of a metaphor than a realisable goal for anything close to what we are using at present. The product should also meet the difficult design requirements of robustness to withstand dust/ humidity/ extreme temperatires as well as other requirements for ‘shared’ machines.

    I would be interested to hear therefore what you think of Simputer, which was one of the earliest experiments in this area (I wrote an essay on this being an example of sustainable design, which led to much discussion and nonetheless as ‘A’ grade in Cambridge, in a course on Engineering for Sustainable Development some years ago).

    Comment by Shefaly Yogendra | February 18, 2007

  3. Akhil: I cannot agree more. There is a crying need to familiarise kids in deprived and semi-urban and rural areas with computers and modern technology – otherwise we face a very real danger of a digital divide.

    Shefaly: I think the whole idea is to go beyond (or behind, if you will) what we are using today and create something that is more suited to the needs of a vast majority of common people (my parents, for example, may hardly have any need for powerpoint or the dozen or so other software programmes that come bundled with any PC). You are quite right that it needs to be robust and low-maintenance (esp. in the dusty, hot environs of India) but I hope that we will eventually get there…

    Comment by Shantanu Bhagwat | February 18, 2007

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