Friday, October 21, 2005

The $100 PC – Not Just for Developing Economies

A new trend I’ve seen come up this past year is the application of technology to the developing world. We apply technology to the developed world, but what about the rest of the world in particular, the developing world? Numerous efforts are focused on eliminating poverty. The UN sponsors the Millennium Development Goals which seeks to eliminate poverty, hunger, and improve our environmental sustainability among other things. To this end, the initiative calls upon technology to provide solutions.

One of these solutions is creating ultra low-cost PCs to provide internet access to people in undeveloped economies. The most recent example is MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop initiative, which seeks to provide low-cost PCs to the developing world using a government’s Ministry of Education as a distribution channel. China, Brazil, Thailand, Egypt, and South Africa top the list of interested countries. Targeted primarily at children in education, the specs on the device include a full-color, full-screen laptop running Linux. It’ll have a 500 MHz processor (most likely from AMD) and 1 Gb of memory along with WiFi and USB ports. According to the MIT report, 2/3 of the software on a laptop goes to support 1/3 of the software which has tremendous redundancy built in. The proposed machine does not have floppy drives, CD-ROMs or even a hard disk. The one feature a user of a $1000 laptop may miss is the storage capacity. Production is scheduled for 2006-2007 and only when 5 million machines have been ordered.

There are other examples some of which commenced in 2000-2001. Novatium in India will offer a $75 computer without a display. One could use an existing display from another computer since displays last several years longer than the computer portion.

Another leading entrant is the Janata PC from India. PC penetration in India is less than 7 people per 1000 compared to 500 in a 1000 for the US. The makers of the Janata PC maintain they can sell 10M computers if the price is brought down to 15,000 rupees ($300). It runs open source software including the Linux operating system and has a low cost processor that runs at 133 MHz. Finding distributors is somewhat difficult due to the low profit margins—but that’s a key point – there are profits to be made which are critical to building a sustainable initiative rather than providing a handout.

The Simputer uses a browser interface to open source Linux software available under the GPL license. For hardware it has
- CPU 32-bit Strong Arm SA-1100 RISC CPU running at 200MHz
- 32 MB of DRAM
- 24 MB Flash for Permanent Storage (DOC)
- Display I/F 320x240 Monochrome LCD Display Panel

For interfaces it has
- Touch-panel Overlay on LCD Display used with a plastic stylus (Pen)
- Speaker and MIC Jacks Smartcard Connector
- RJ-11 Telephone Jack
- USB Connector

Numerous companies make the Simputer including Amida . The target price is Rs 9000 ($180).

Inabling Technologies launched an email only system for Rs 7000 ($149).

Brazil’s Popular PC sells for $300 and consists of 16MG flash memory, no hard drive, floppy disk or CD-ROM, and runs open source software.

A great blog for learning more is the NextBillion site which carries entries related to initiatives both financial and technological for eliminating poverty around the world.

Finding a way to provide technology at an affordable price to the developing world brings dividends to the developed world since it pushes the boundaries of technology and its cost. The more I look at MIT’s $100 laptop the more applications I see in Virtual Instrumentation. By using the WiFi connection to provide a link to a server for data storage, I don’t need large storage space. I could use the $100 laptop in many applications.

If you are working with technology for the developing world, I would like to hear from you. You can reach me at hall.martin@ni.com.

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin

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