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As the 'next billion' struggle to emerge from India, the lack of tech laws and growth of band-aid technology, have created a unique Chiba. Sentience of the emerging silicon, is tested here

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Cheap computers and eLearning: Towards higher literacy and corporate revenue?

maybe moving towards IT superpowerdom, yet for most of the Indian population computers remain prohibitively priced. This base concern of price has worried the industry for some time now. Educationists feel that the pricing denies access to people who could benefit from the information that can be accessed and shared through computers and the internet. For this camp, the price acts as a major constraint on elearning. Dr. V Nagarajan, ex-professor of Madras University says “The deciding factor is the cost of computers. Primarily computer-based education must be available at the school level and community level as networked and distributed resources.”

Less is more
But educationists are not the only ones lobbying for reduced computer prices. Software and hardware industries also have a lot to gain if prices fall. Currently both these industries are facing markets that are saturating at tremendous speeds. Hardware manufacturers have been trying to bring down prices in an effort to tap into markets that have been outside the purview of computers. The software firms, also, feel that lower computer costs will make piracy economically unviable and thus increase revenue collection.

Even though falling prices will increase the size of the pie, all current efforts to bring down prices have met with disaster. The ‘One laptop per child’ initiative started by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte and supported by Rupert Murdoch, is one such approach. This initiative envisaged a computer that would cost $100, and would be distributed (and paid for by NGOs) in rural areas. Yet a decade and a millions of dollars later, the initiative still has not been able to reach its $100 goal. The computer called XO relies on heavily subsidised prices from chip and computer screen manufacturers.

‘The street finds its own use for things’
Novatium, an Indian company has come up with a novel solution to this problem. They have put together a computer that doesn’t have expensive moving parts that usually push up the price of computers. The netPC, as it is called, is a little box that when connected to a monitor, keyboard and a ‘network’ line, functions just like an ordinary computer. The company decided to use mobile phone chips as processors that are a fraction of the cost of usual computer processors. They also decided to do away with the hard disk or the operating system that usually resides on the computer.

Instead of an operating system Novatium has opted for a model called ‘thin client’. In this model the computer is connected to server on which the operating system and the storage space reside. The computer just requires enough memory and processing power to connect to the server. Once this is done, the server acts as a doorway for the computer. The person using the computer can access the internet, send and receive email, download applications and read documents.

Dr Nagaraj says, “The computer must be sturdy to withstand rough and tough handling. Need for an AC and dust free environment will defeat the purpose of making computers available to the hard-to-reach rural population.” The netPC easily meets this requirement. The lack of moving parts, such as hard disks and CD Roms make the system very sturdy.

The netPC requires an initial investment of $70. The screen, keyboard and mouse need to be bought separately. After this, the user needs to pay a monthly amount of $10 per month as a subscription cost for using Novatium’s services. This does reduce the cost of using a computer. This reduction in cost has already caught the attention of Microsoft, which has signed up to work with Novatium.

No Panacea
Yet the netPC is not a panacea to the developing world’s computing needs. The netPC requires a network line that enables the computer to connect to the server. Thus for the model to work these lines represent an infrastructural constraint. Nisheeth Mishra, business head of Novatium, disagrees “ all it [netPC] requires is a physical network reach in the homes, i.e. a phoneline or a wireless last mile. These are pretty widely available.”

Even if these lines are available, two basic problems remain. Firstly to target rural areas, assured electricity is required. Secondly, spreading elearning requires that the users know how to read and write the local language or English. In a country like ours, both these cannot be worked with as a given.

“Without electricity it [netPC] will not work. However, our device is the lowest power consumption CPU ever made. It consumes only 5W of power, and therefore can run on inverters for hours or on battery also. Still the only concern is that we do not have a similar power consumption monitor” says Mishra. Yet even if batteries for the monitor are developed, the problem of teaching an unlettered population through a medium that primarily relies on text remains.

Dr. Nagarajan agrees “information, knowledge and wisdom are unconnected with the technology of literacy. Unfortunately computers are developed to suit those who can use the sight and alphabet. Increased use of voice and multimedia will make computers a technology for illiteracy.” As of now the netPC has not solved this.

The PC also has other complications. The netPC depends on the server to do all its processing, thus if the server develops a problem and stops functioning, the computer will also stop working. Mishra clarifies, “The server, the network, the client all are single point of failures as far as components are concerned. However, by design the client is supposed to be robust and never fail. We have for the last 1.5 years not reported a single failure. On the server, adequate redundancy planning is done so that the uptimes are guaranteed.”

Community wealth or revenue generation
Once the system is made available to the masses, content that is created and shared will also have to be looked into. “Community knowledge network is the basic theme” says Mishra. He also adds “There are opportunities of consumer research, advertising and value added services that can earn more than basic revenue. We shall definitely offer the advert services to the community that opts for it. [For example] Premium users may choose a no advert service whereas some may choose to view specific categories of direct advertising. Our platform is capable of being exploited in either way.”

Dr Nagarajan disagrees “Internet must be used with caution. Like TV, computer cannot be used for cultural invasion and moral corruption. Learning with innovative use of existing technologies in convergence with edusat will link the entire nation into a net work where the best practices will be absorbed and adopted for local use by teachers and students”.

Even though the netPC may look like a viable alternative that can reduce the digital divide, it still needs to face the market to come up with workable solutions to the problems it now faces. Dr Nagaraj remarks “India is not interested in Microsoft windows but using the computer as a window to the world.”

Link: the learned man
Link: Rajesh Jain's blog

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