The One Laptop Per Child project is only one—albeit the largest—of more than 20 initiatives in low-cost computing. Some, like the OLPC, are trying to design low cost or ruggedized computers; others are trying different approaches to make traditional computers more affordable.
One of the earliest efforts dates back to 1998, when a group of engineers attending an information technology conference in Bangalore decided that rural India needed a new, handheld computer designed specifically for that environment. They established the Simputer Trust to design a machine that would be practical for users who were illiterate, have low power requirements, and cost under US $200 per unit. The trust intended to license the design to manufacturers.
The Simputer designers came up with a computer about the size of a paperback book. The device was slow to reach the marketplace. Manufacturing didn’t ramp up until 2004, three years after much of the hype about the project. By that point, they had redesigned the machine to run on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries instead of short-lived AAA batteries; not exactly a good choice for people without easy access to electricity.
By 2005, two manufacturers, PicoPeta and Encore Technologies, sold a total of only 4000 Simputers. In 2005, PicoPeta relaunched the device as the Amida Simputer, with a color screen and support for Indian languages and connections to CDMA mobile phones. Today, the Amida Simputer costs $130 to $260, depending on screen size. The Simputer fell far short of its rural target and became just another option for mobile, urban professionals.
But today many companies are trying to succeed where the Simputer failed. Microsoft, for example, is targeting middle-income nations with its FlexGo program, which the company describes as ”pay-as-you-go computing.” Rather than spending $1000 on a PC, a buyer spends a small fraction up front and then buys prepaid cards that allow use of the computer. When time expires on the cards, the computer locks itself until the user purchases additional time via another prepaid card. Once the user has purchased 800 hours’ worth of prepaid cards, the computer unlocks for good and works as an ordinary PC.
FlexGo has already done well in Brazil, so Microsoft is now launching additional pilot programs in China, Hungary, India, Mexico, Russia, Slovenia, and Vietnam. Because a FlexGo PC costs more than a conventional PC, those in the lowest-income nations can’t afford it.
Microsoft is now negotiating possible partnerships with Internet service providers, which might offer the devices for free as part of a subscription service; the cost of the PC would be included in monthly Internet service payments. The ISP could disable the computer if the owner fell behind on payments.
Its success in Brazil notwithstanding, the FlexGo concept is flawed in several ways. First, it’s unclear whether many users will be willing to trust their data to a device that can lock its owner out. And while the payment plan lowers the up-front cost of the machine, in the end, the FlexGo PC is more expensive than the same PC would have been if the buyer simply bought it outright. Finally, other than the novel payment enforcement mechanism, the FlexGo PCs don't have any other adaptations for developing world conditions.
Still, the scheme just might work. Look at the popularity of rent-to-own furniture stores and payday lending; in the long run they don’t make economic sense, but they appeal successfully to a certain income group. And Microsoft can certainly take its time waiting for this to catch on.
SHARE THE CYCLES
The NStation is the latest in a long line of products designed to let multiple users share a single CPU.
A start-up company called NComputing, in Redwood City, Calif., has another vision of affordable computing. The company’s NStation peripherals enable from three to 30 users to share a single PC at a cost of about $70 per user plus the cost of monitors (probably another $50.)
The NComputing product is the latest in a long line of technologies designed to ”share” a single CPU with multiple monitors. In 2004, HP pioneered this concept with the 441, a system that shared one CPU with four monitors. A few of them were sold in South Africa, and the systems are still available, but they’re quite expensive, once you consider the cost of the monitor plus the keyboard plus the mouse plus networking hardware. Such gimmicky shared computing approaches don’t lower cost or power consumption significantly.
A better option is recycled PCs. Recycled PCs, scrapped in the United States or Europe but revived to run Microsoft Windows 98 or Linux, are popular in developing nations and are often available for under $50. Schoolnet Namibia, in Katutura, for example, has installed ”second-user” computers in 300 Namibian schools. Recycling centers around the country refurbish the machines and equip them with versions of Linux designed for educational use. While the software is specially configured for developing world classrooms, the hardware is as power-hungry as a conventional U.S. computer and isn’t well designed to work outside the power grid.