Other Roads to Computing for All

7 min read

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.

Photo: NComputing, Inc.


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.

Advanced Micro Devices, in Sunnyvale, Calif., tried a radically different approach to selling computers in middle-income nations with its Personal Internet Communicator, but it got out of that business late last year, selling the Communicator assets to Data Evolution Corp., of New Orleans. The Communicator’s future is unclear. With the same approach as FlexGo—selling in middle-income nations through ISPs—the Communicator looked radically different from a traditional PC. Shaped like a gray brick and customized by different ISPs with colorful plastic accents, the computer was designed for more rugged use than a traditional PC and optimized to use little power, featuring the same AMD Geode 500@1.0W processor used in the OLPC design. It came with 128 megabytes of RAM, a 10-gigabyte hard drive, and a 56-kilobit-per-second modem. The Communicator didn’t include native support for wireless Internet access or Ethernet; ISPs sold the machine with an adaptor that turned one of the device’s four USB ports into an Ethernet jack.

AMD compensated for the minimalist hardware by running a customized edition of Windows CE, a version of Windows designed for handheld devices. Unlike most versions of Windows, Windows CE is offered as ”shared source” software, which allowed AMD to partially customize the software and let the device use some Windows XP applications.

Cable & Wireless, based in London, the primary ISP in the Caribbean, sold the Communicator with a mouse, a keyboard, and a CRT display for $350, discounted to $300 for high-speed Internet access subscribers. A Turkish ISP sold two packages, one with a CRT and another with an LCD panel monitor, for $280 and $440, respectively; both came with a foldable Razor-style scooter as a bonus gift with purchase.

The Communicator had to be attached to a monitor—and that was its weakness. While the Communicator itself used very little power and could be run off a 12-volt car battery as well as ac power, external monitors draw lots of power. CRT monitors draw roughly 150 watts when in use, but LCD monitors are more efficient, drawing roughly 50 W. Either one, however, dwarfed the power requirements of the Communicator itself and meant the Communicator wouldn’t work in regions without an electric grid.

One challenge such low-cost devices face is the falling price of conventional PCs. Chinese firm YellowSheepRiver Municator, in Macao, is selling a significantly fuller-featured PC (with a DVD drive, Wi-Fi, and larger memory and hard drive) for roughly $150, using Linux rather than Windows CE. The real question for the Communicator may be whether it’s sufficiently different from existing options. But the low price and the partnerships with local telephone companies may make it at least a moderate success.

Photo: Intel Corporation


The technical specs of this low-cost laptop are still under wraps.

Another initiative, Intel’s Eduwise, launched in May 2006, appears to have many of the same goals as the OLPC project. Development on the Eduwise device is in a much earlier stage than that on the OLPC laptop, but Intel’s Paul Otellini, president and CEO, has promised a ”full-featured” laptop, capable of running conventional Windows software, for $400. At the time of the launch, the company announced it planned to provide 300 000 Mexican teachers with such laptops, in cooperation with the Mexican government. But all anyone has seen of the Eduwise so far is its conceptual design—it looks like a woman’s purse. The technical specs are still under wraps.

And then there’s the cellphone. When Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, first announced his goal of creating a $100 laptop for the developing world, Microsoft executives suggested that he was on a fool’s errand because the perfect global computing platform already exists—the cellphone. Microsoft has since backed away from this particular argument, but there’s no denying the worldwide penetration of mobile phones. The technology research company, Gartner, in Stamford, Conn., predicts the sale of 850 million new handsets in 2006. Of those phones, 200 million will be purchased in China and India, and phones are selling well even in the poorest nations, including sub-Saharan Africa.

The impact of mobile phones in the developing world has been sudden and profound. Farmers use phones to check market prices and schedule deliveries. Businesspeople replace travel to meetings with phone calls. A study from the London Business School suggests that small increases in telephone ownership in nations is correlated with increases in economic success; and because wireless phone networks are easier to build than wired ones, entrepreneurs are blanketing the developing world with cell towers and selling millions of handsets.

In comparison to mobile phones, the global PC market is quite small—172 million machines sold in 2004, most in developed nations. It’s less clear that people are clamoring for PCs in the developing world the way they’ve sought out mobile phones. For many people, the economic impact of a PC is more distant than that of a phone—a phone means knowing that crops can sell for a higher price tomorrow, while a PC means a child may have a chance at a better job perhaps 15 years from now.

For an educational project that plans to teach the world’s children computer programming and replace textbooks with a handheld device, the mobile phone looks like an imperfect solution. But for companies hoping to capture consumer spending in developing nations, competition from increasingly powerful mobile phones may be a fearsome barrier to PC adoption.

About the Author

Ethan Zuckerman is a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and cofounder of Global Voices, a nonprofit organization that tracks citizens’ journalism around the world. He was also the founder of Geekcorps, a technology volunteer corps that sends information technology specialists to work on projects in developing nations, with a focus on West Africa.

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