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.
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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