February 15, 2006 12:58 PM PST

PCs for the poor: Which design will win?

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use the PC, and then going home to teach the parents. Internet cafes in emerging markets have already familiarized locals with PCs too: Visit an Internet cafe almost anywhere, and you'll see people conducting VoIP video calls.

Cons: Price. Via's PC will probably cost about $250. Backers envision these as shared units inside villages. Also, these PCs, like some others on the list, fail to directly tackle the connectivity problem. In India, broadband means 128kbps, and in Africa it's almost nonexistent. WiMax may help, someday.

The Microsoft cell phone
What it is: Microsoft has been showing off a prototype-in-progress of a cellular device that can serve as a computer.

Pros: The cell phone is a device that's pretty familiar. Far more people in places like China and India use cell phones than computers. Even in rich countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, phone ownership is in the 90 percent range, while PC ownership is down in the 20 percent range (and, to cut costs, some UAE residents get their cell service from companies in Iran). Connectivity is assured in huge areas of the globe.

Cons: Connectivity can be expensive. Also, though cell phones are good for getting information, they're not necessarily that great for performing geometry homework or keeping household accounts. These devices would need keyboards, screens and applications. The small-screen issue has hurt other computerlike devices for the poor.

The four-way
What it is: Hewlett-Packard tinkered with a computer called the 441 System in South Africa. (HP has a solar powered printer and camera for mobile photo studios as well.) The 441 could handle four users at once, in different languages, by way of multiple keyboards and screens. Overall, HP said, the Linux-based 441 cut hardware acquisition costs for the same number of users by up to 50 percent and maintenance and operation costs by up to 65 percent.

Pros: A hybrid of the SUV PC and the thin client, the 441 accommodated more users at once than a standard PC, but without some of the performance issues associated with thin clients. A multiplicity of languages is also a crucial concern in many nations.

Cons: HP killed it.

The Linux system
What it is: Brazil has tried to promote a Linux-based desktop for years. The program has largely been bogged down by government bureaucracy.

Pros: Using Linux rather than Microsoft clearly drops the acquisition price of the PC. Microsoft's Starter Edition XP, a version of Windows XP for the developing world, reduces some of the cost advantages. Critics, though, note that Starter Edition isn't as flexible as the standard Windows XP.

Cons: It's Linux. It works, but the lack of applications, and compatibility issues, tend to prompt users to gravitate toward Windows. Even Chinese PC dealers will tell you that many customers put pirated copies of Windows on their Linux PCs after they buy them.

The Personal Internet Communicator
What it is: Designed by AMD, these portable devices run on a version of Windows CE and an energy-efficient processor. The machines cost about $180 without monitor. Most people buy them bundled with Internet service through ISPs.

Pros: It's on the market already, and telecommunications carriers are selling it, meaning that some of the big hurdles have already been cleared. In terms of design and functionality, it's similar to the $100 laptop, but it runs Microsoft software, meaning compatibility is less of an issue. It's portable and has a built-in screen.

Cons: The price isn't that much lower than that of a full-fledged PC with monitor. The machines have been released in India and the Caribbean, but sales have been tepid.

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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

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-
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.....

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?

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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...

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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