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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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Monday, February 19, 2007

Cheap computing: Hundred Dollars?

The $100 PC: the elusive dream that big wigs have been chasing for quite a while now. It’s a device that has been hypothesized to change the way technology can help development of people in backward countries. The vision is amazing, a child sitting in the back of beyond, can access the internet, learn how to use PCs, and ultimately receive education that has failed to reach his area. The digital divide gets breached and ultimately sublimates into nothingness.

But is this possible? Although the global philanthropies seem to shedding tears and emptying their pockets, an all affordable PC is still far from production stage. Newer technology (core duo processors and windows Vesta) is busy cranking up prices of the PC. As older hardware and software gets regularly erased from the legit and black markets, the cheap PC will continue to be a delusion.

However the Indian market seems to have created a cheaper alternative. Novatium’s Rajesh Jain (with help of IIT Chennai professor Dr. Ashok Jhunjhunwala and his team) has created an ingenious device that can increase the penetration of PC in the Indian market. The concept is not new; in fact it’s a model that has been actively practiced in all big corporates: Thin client model.

The thin client model has no central processor of its own or even a storage device. In this model, a screen and a keyboard, is connected to a server through a ‘client’ box. All the processing, from booting to surfing, is carried out by the server. The client contains just enough hardware to be able to connect to the server, launch a browser and connect to the input/output devices. Since the client needs bare minimum hardware, it doesn’t need expensive processors and circuitry. The server houses all the expensive materials, from large storage hard disks to expensive operating systems.

This model has evolved as a standard practise in large offices. The data remains secure at the servers, while cost of each work station falls.

But Jain has tweaked the model. He has proposed a model in which a thin client is sold for as low as $70. The screen(A TV can also be used) and keyboard have to be purchased separately. Once the hardware is in place, a cable connects the ‘PC’ to the Novatium server. The server provides the thin client with everything from surfing, checking email and even creating documents which can be saved on the server. Novatium plans to charge $10 per month for providing this service.

This model has caught the fancy of major software producers. In India, software companies have been maligned by the easy availability of pirated software. As a result the companies have not been able to cash in on people using their software. Jain’s model, works for them too. The companies will be able to charge Novatium for using its software; also the software companies may be able to bill the users directly.

The hardware manufacturers are also pleased. Global sales of PCs have been falling for a while. The only method to increase revenue is to tap into markets where computer systems are not wide spread. Jain’s model will open the market for another device that they can mass produce and market for higher profitability. It also opens up another platform for advertisers to sell their products. For all the associated computer usage and companies, Jain’s model could herald a new boom.

But in the fan fare, there is certain things that stand out. Jain’s thin film model has few problems that still need to be answered. Jain’s Pc needs a fast internet line that can enable easy data transfer between the input/output devices (with the user) and the processor in the server. These lines are still a rarity. For the model to work, the availability of these connections has to be increased.

The second issue is that of security. Since the data and the programs are saved in the server, it represents a single point of failure. If the server fails, all the clients connected to it may become useless. The redundancy model needed to counter this has not been talked about.

Thirdly, the company has not released the constraints that users will be under. Its still not clear whether the users will be allowed to program. The mode of advertising, weather pay per click or other models has not been discussed.

But the major fact is that this new ‘PC’ requires an internet line and electricity for the computer screen. The availability of these two factors in India will ensure that the PC will largely remain an urban centric device. This sort of infrastructure is virtually non existent in rural India. Thus the device is clearly not guided to increase internet and PC penetration in those regions.

Although the system has potential to increase penetration of both, the internet and PC use, in virtually virgin markets, unless the infrastructure needed to make it viable is made readily available, the cheap PC will remain a concept.

Link: Rajesh Jain's blog

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