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Monday, August 23, 2010

Edition 28: US$35 Computer

Why $35 Joke Isn't Funny Anymore


PRASANTO K ROY

Here we go again. Indian HRD minister Kapil Sibal has “launched” a $35 computer, evidently his “dream project”. The touch-screen, Linux-based device looks iPad inspired, but we know little about how it works. It emerged from a student project with a bill of material adding up to $47, a price that the minister wants to bring down to $10 “to take forward inclusive education”. It promises browser and PDF reader, wi-fi, 2GB memory, USB, Open Office, and multimedia content viewers and interfaces.



Will it die a quick death within this year, or a painful, government funded one over the next two? I fear the latter. The Rs 10,000 PC. The Simputer. The $100 MIT laptop. Net-

PCs from a host of companies. India's so-called $10 laptop. How many flops and failures will it take to convince governments (and brave but misled companies) to get facts of tech, products, and life? You don't launch products until you have a product to launch. Else it's vaporware. The Indian government is building up a good track record of vaporware, from $10 laptops upward. (Apple launches with a million units ready to sell, and midnight queues outside.)



You don't show prototypes unless they are working ones with running apps, backed by a clear game plan to build up a vendor and apps network, and a clear design, spec (and preferably bill of materials). It's the application and the apps ecosystem. What will it be

used for, and who will make those apps? Where's the developer community and the roadmap for hundreds of apps, as Apple had when it launched the iPhone and the iPad?

Product design isn't one-off. It's an ongoing process, with software updates, improvements, upgrades, and most of all, growing apps support. You can make a orking laptop, but it's no trivial task maintaining it through the lifecycle of the product, ensuring support, firmware and hardware upgrades, and new versions.



Replicating the Nano story is no joke. It takes years, expertise, innovation, hard work and lots of luck to launch a product at one-tenth the current market price. I don't know of any examples of such overnight miracles (the Nano arrived after years of work, at about half of the current entry-level product's price.) You don't re-invent the wheel. We already have $35 computing Devices. We call them mobile phones.



They're capable, connected, always-on, personal, and every second Indian has one. They're an ideal front-end to information and entertainment. Over the years I've been less

blunt about cheap-PC efforts. But now I am angry. The government is wasting its efforts and my tax money, and making a laughing stock of Indian technological prowess. It isn't the government's job to create and sell cheap PCs. If it wants to use ICT for development

and education, it can use some of our tax rupeers to build the ecosystem. And ramp up tech usage in the government: ensure employees have broadband at home, with reasons to use it as well as mobile data and apps. It can use the funds and roadmap of the Sakshat project to fund content development for $35 mobile phones—of which there must be 100 million in India. This isn't the first “cheap laptop” effort. MIT's $100 laptop hasn't taken off yet, though it's at the $200 level and has a roadmap—including options to fund a subsidy.

And maybe Sakshat 2.0 is not a hoax, unlike its predecessor. Yes, you can reach any price with sufficient subsidy. But that is no enduring solution. It may make more sense for India negotiate a rockbottom price for 10 million of last year's laptops, and subsidize them down to $35.

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