February 15, 2006 12:58 PM PST

PCs for the poor: Which design will win?

It's easy to list the benefits of bringing inexpensive computers to the billions of people who live in rural villages and urban centers in the developing world.

Village computers allow kids to take classes in areas where schools have closed and let adults learn pricing strategies for their agricultural products. A van rigged with a satellite connection and printers produces inexpensive books for kids in Uganda.

In some countries, like Egypt, a growing technology base holds the promise of a rising middle class, and eventual political stability.

Photos: PCs for the poor

Only about 1 billion, or 16 percent of the 6.5 billion people living today, use the Internet, according to a running tally at Advanced Micro Devices.

Designing machines that are resilient, powerful and cheap enough to reach those not yet online, though, has proven a lot tougher than expected. India's Simputer, an inexpensive handheld, flopped. Brazil has worked for years on a Linux PC for the poor, to no avail.

"Initiatives of this sort need serious consideration from everyone. Developing nations need to start teaching about technology early in schools," said Luis Anavitarte, an analyst at Gartner. "But the reality kind of changes when we look at the costs and the functionality of these devices."

Recently, some new ideas have come to the forefront. Here's a quick rundown of their pros and cons.

The Negroponte machine
What it is: This $100 machine from Nicholas Negroponte and the MIT Media Center runs Linux. The machines can connect to the Internet through each other by way of mesh networking. The system ideally will allow people to connect to the Web even though the wireless, fiber and/or phone system might be spread somewhat thin. Electricity delivery will be innovative: There's a hand crank on the side, and the units can conceivably be powered by bikes or solar power.

Pros: Several partners have lined up behind the computer. Red Hat will produce software, Taiwan's Quanta will make the machines; and AMD will supply the processors. When they emerge at the end of the year, the first 5 million to 15 million units will get shipped to China, Brazil, India, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria and Thailand.

Cons: To hit the low price, the machine's makers have to leave some things out. The unit comes with only a 500MHz processor and 500MB of local storage (in the form of flash memory--the laptops won't include drives). The units don't sport mainstream applications. Even with these cost-cutting measures, it remains to be seen whether the $100 price point can be achieved in volume manufacturing. "$100 is an extremely optimistic figure," said Gartner's Anavitarte. More likely, the device will cost more, he added. That means governments will have to subsidize it. Unfortunately, the presidents who have welcomed the program have not outlined their fiscal plans.

In addition, computers without hard drives have historically flopped because of slow performance. Small screens have been a turnoff as well. And there's at least nominal PC access, through Internet cafes, in some of these countries. It's an open question, too, how well mesh networking will work.

The thin client
What it is: Thin clients are inexpensive, lightweight terminals that rely on servers to store data and crunch numbers. They're used by banks, airlines and insurance companies in the west, and entrepreneurs such as India's Rajesh Jain and academics like Deepak Phatak and Ashok Jhunjhunwala are promoting them for rural use.

Pros: Because they don't need fast processors or a hard drive, thin clients can be produced for about $100, including a used monitor. Some designs use an existing TV to cut costs further. The fact that the software is centralized on a server also makes it easier to handle upgrades and control viruses. Interestingly, local leaders, rather than multinationals, are behind this one.

Cons: Thin clients rely on servers, so if the server goes out, the terminals go down. Users have also said that thin clients can run slowly if too many people log on to the server, but proponents say the technology has steadily improved.

The SUV PC
What it is: These PCs are made to run in harsh environments. They run on car batteries or solar power and are hermetically sealed to keep out dust. Intel and Via Technologies have come out with prototypes.

Pros: The machines tackle the huge issues of dust and electricity, and replacement parts are easy to find. The fact that these are standard PCs also means that villagers gain real-world job skills through their use. In a program in Kerala, India, schoolkids are learning how to

CONTINUED: The Microsoft cell phone…
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17 comments

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Nice idea,,,
.... but not likely to work.

Computers for the world's poor need to fill a crucial role in the
people's lives, and need to utilize the personal skills the people
possess. Education seems to be the number one prerequisite,
from which computer usage naturally flows. Without the
education in action, the computer is a doorstop. By the way,
what languages are going to be used in these computers, versus
what languages the users are likely to use?

The CIA World Factbook notes over 700 indigenous languages in
the world, not counting the dialects. And then , how many have
a written form? and what fraction of the relevant population is
literate?

I think that there are lots of questions needing answers before
any $100 computer project gets too involved in the hardware.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Incredibly stupid idea
I've seen numerous versions of this story on CNET. The bottom line is that the $100 laptop is going to be paid by someone other than the recipient. If the UN's involved, there's no limit to the corruption and incompetence. The laptop is a stupid idea. The children's parents need to live under the rule of law, with freedom, safety, and economic opportunity. The children need food, clothing, housing, health care, clean water, and properly sewage disposal. The last thing they need is a $100 laptop.
Posted by lingsun (482 comments )
Reply Link Flag
commodore C-64
Who ever owns the rights to the old Commodore C-64/Amiga brand, needs to wake up now. I owned both and in my opinion, they were the best. I would have one now but, I can't because their extinct. It is a shame that I had to spend so much money on a "PC" to access the internet when I only wanted Internet Access, Web TV doesn't qualify. I only want a " something " that can connect to the internet at broadband speeds and not a computer that can do other things I don't want or need.
Posted by cmccarle2000 (8 comments )
Link Flag
lack of applications for linux?
Now, I can't imagine that the first released generations of these computers will be internet connected, so prey tell, what could kids need that isn't already on linux? I'm guessing they probably won't be playing Doom 3 and World of Warcraft or (lets hope) have Microsoft office product, so what applications exactilly does linux still lack?

I would guess that most of the applications would need to be customized (or built from the ground up) for these computers anyway, so why not for linux, espeically when a lot of the applications could possibly made by the open source programmers around the world for free!
Posted by mwa423 (78 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It is thoroughly, incredibly, ill-conceived
If a family is too poor to afford a computer, chances are it has
more urgent basic needs and the family will sell the computer at
the first possible moment and use the proceeds to buy food,
shelter, clothing, perhaps medicine.

I grew up in the third world. I remember an uncle buying a
bicycle for this guy who walked quite a distance every day to get
to his subsistence-level job. He sold it after three weeks
because he needed the money to buy food for his family.

Now if a family can afford a $100 computer and knows that it
can derive the full benefit of a computer, then it will save a little
more to get a full-fledged computer.

There is no market for a $100 mickey mouse computer.

What Nicholas Negroponte should do now that he has quit his
day job is to go to a third world country and live for three
months with the sort of family that his computer is designed for.
Only after then will he really know what computer design, if
ever, would work.

So far though, this whole enterprise smacks of first-world-guy-
jets-through-third-world-and-determines-he-knows-best-
what's-good-for-them.
Posted by tundraboy (494 comments )
Reply Link Flag
A laptop will win
Something like the machine like the one designed by Negroponte. Here is why:

1. It is small and easy to store --> people don't have the space for a DT system
2. It has an independent power supply. --> main grids are unreliable and one inveriably needs a UPS of some kind
3. From the looks of it it seems reliable --> they are not handled in a careful manner and climate conditions can be adverse.

There is one requirement the system currently seems to be missing --> full connectivity to an GSM/GPRS/UMTS standard system. Because this is the one system that garantuees internet access in the target markets is and already very much available. Forget the rest when it comes to internet access.....

PHV
Posted by Henriv (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Waste of Money
The truth is, a lot of people in third world countries do know how to use a computer, and they are surprisingly proficient with one.

If they don't know how to use a computer, its generally because they are too poor to go to school in the first place, and as a reader aptly put it, the $100 computer will be quickly sold for $50 to buy medicine or food for the needy family.

The whole point of this $100 computer is to try and narrow the gap between the haves and the have nots, improving their education and giving them a better life. I'm afraid that anybody that would likely benefit from this type of "cheap computer" is far too poor to buy one in the first place, regardless of price. Unless of course, the local government would subsidize the price, which would end up with some black marketeer cornering the market of these cheap computers and dismantling them for spare parts and scrap.

Try offering free lessons in sponsored (read: heavily subsidized) Internet cafes in these third world countries instead. Even at commercial rates, you're talking about 50 cents an hour per computer, and throw in the cost of the teacher (which is about $5 a day). Thats about $55 to teach 100 impoverished students, who might just learn some real world skills and find a half decent office job.

My theory is definitely full of gaping holes, but what could be worse than advocating a substandard pc, running non-commercially viable (non-Microsoft) productivity software, sold at a price that no poor third world family could ever afford?

As an employer, I'd take more comfort in the fact that a prospective employee showed some initiative in attending sponsored classes to learn Word and Excel, can turn on a real computer and use Internet Explorer to research on the Internet, and did it dirt poor, starving at an Internet cafe just to have the chance to make something of himself.

I'm not sure what I'd think of the guy with the $100 laptop that self taught himself a non-standard program that runs on a machine I'd never buy for my business. I'd probably think he's not too bright, why didnt he hang out at the library reading C# and Advanced JSP books, and figuring it out at the local Internet cafe?

I know who I'd hire.
Posted by ehui (14 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Microsoft not the be all and end all...
"non-commercially viable (non-Microsoft) productivity software"

Many companies have built their businesses on so-called ""non-commercially viable" software. Look at the major Linux distributors (Red Hat, SuSE, Mandriva). Open-source doesn't neccesarily mean you won't be able to sell the software (some open-source licences, including the GPL, say you can sell the software licenced under them).
Posted by booboo1243 (328 comments )
Link Flag
HP 441 System!
Has this "kool" system really been killed by HP? The article says so, under "Cons:"!
What a pity if they have - I've seen 1 such system, with an additional little box for a 5th Mon, K/b, Mouse, S/drive, & it's a bomb!
Ok, the link is slow but that's not the library's fault!
Posted by gerardw (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Psion was close
Psion hardware, operating system and applications co-evolved to
provide effective computing utility on a low cost, low computing
resource, reliable (most models) platform. They had already solved
a lot of the issues facing the $100 laptop. Psion devices evolved
from a calculator whereas the lap-top Linux solution evolved
(devolved?) from mainframes.
Posted by joemcswiney (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Why This Project Tilts at Windmills
I fully concur that the benefits of computer learning would be great for the world's poor, any IT manager knows that the cost of the machine is not the most expensive part of owning the computer. No, it's not the software either. It is support and training.

Most of us who are proficient enough to logon to CNET and post comments have been so proficient for years. We easily forget how difficult it was for those of us over 25 to get proficient with the hours of trial and error. We have to assume that the teachers and administrators, not to mention the kids, will also be computer illiterate. I have to think that the cost to train staff and kids how to use computers will dwarf the $100. Are we adequately taking this into account?

Mark Brandon
Sustainable Log - News and Views for Socially Responsible Investors
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Posted by 208mbrandon (23 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What about our old pcs?
Surely they would have ore power than the DSP machines? Everyone wants a laptop I guess...

KM
Posted by kieranmullen (1070 comments )
Reply Link Flag
PCs for Poor
we have programmed a chip which sits on standard PCI network card socket. This card on inserting into any old PC (386 with 32Mb RAM on wards) can talk to Windows 2003 / Linux server to execute server resided applications.

We have enterprise applications such as Baan, SAP,Oracle running in Indian organizations.

This way one can save environment, recycle old PCs and more poors can be brought into main stream line of education.
Posted by shainuvili (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Comouters for the poor
halo am dealing in Development work in zambia and am very much interested on how my country organisation can access these comouters as i believe that technology is the key for more African children to be aware and advanced on the happenings of the world.
i will be happy for more information that i can get
Posted by rkalaba (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
 

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