Sunday, October 2, 2005

The $100 PC

A few people (1, 2, 3) have been posting once again about MIT prof Nicholas Negroponte's $100 PC project. The project has a noble goal: To develop a PC suitable for use in 3rd world countries, for educational use, for a price tag of $100.

The project is receiving praise ranging from pats on the back to (one would assume) outpourings of grant money. Not to mention press coverage. The story makes good press, that's for sure.

While I applaud the lofty goal, I feel like there are a few problems with his approach that no one is addressing. In addition, there are several less sexy alternatives that no one is discussing, and which I'd like to point out.


  • Maintenance and TCO: PC's (and other systems) are often referred to in terms of Total Cost of Ownership or TCO. This is a function of the cost of the system, the cost of deploying the system, and the cost of maintaining the system over the course of it's lifetime. Often, the cost of the system itself is insignificant in comparison with the other costs involved. In other words, the $100 PC is useless unless you also get it into someone's hands, set up their internet access/account/etc, and support them when their machine breaks down, gets a virus, etc. It would be nice to see how much or little these other costs would add to the "$100". [It'll sound very MS-ish of me to say, but Linux is quickly garnering a reputation in the IT community for having lower entry (free) cost but higher TCO. Just have a look at IBM's services biz to get an idea.]
  • One way to reduce - but not eliminate - TCO is to build fixed-function vs general purpose PC's. Not unlike what WebTV, game consoles, word processors, etc, have done for years. However, you only put off what may later becomes a bigger problem as a million devices become obsolete as needs grow.
  • Infrastructure: One of the proposed ideas for Negroponte's project is a hand-crank for when electricity is unavailable. However, the power infrastructure is only one of the needed infrastructure components. Communications infrastructure, server requirements, etc, need to also be figured into the cost. Another example is a service channel. Getting replacement parts, upgrades, etc, into the hands of people means a whole chain.
  • Corruption: We've seen plans where $0.50/day to feed a child resulted in aid that subsequently either didn't reach it's intended beficiaries or only a portion of it did, because varies levels of gov't corruption each took their piece. A realistic plan would take this into account.

Alternative approaches:

There are other (granted, less sexy) alternatives to consider

  • Shared resource PC's. The idea here is to let 10 people share a $1000 computer, rather than have 10 people each have a $100 computer. There are two forms this has already taken today with great success: Internet cafes (shared via rented time) are an example seen in many parts of the world; community PCs in places like remote parts of India are another example, where 1 PC is used by the community through a local service person/operator, for things like sending email, filing government forms, etc - teaching in a classroom could adopt a similar model. Both of these examples have their differences, but the point I'm trying to make with this one is that there are other models that work, and don't have to subscribe to the very western philosophy of personal property, This-is-MY-pc, etc.
  • Recycled PCs. This has been successful in parts of the western world, including the US, in programs to outfit inner city schools and such. Before you gasp at the image of handing over your 286 to someone and saying "good luck!"; keep in mind that falling hardware prices in general mean that the age of discarded equipment is dropping. Just look at cell phones, where often it's only one-year-old tech being discarded, and many would view it as sufficient for basic functionality. Same goes for here.
  • Cell phones: Blasphemous as it may be fore me to say, several have proposed taking your mid-range phone of today, and connecting a larger display and keyboard to it. (Perhaps with those being shared components at community terminals?) The phone of today is the PC of a few years ago. Maybe good enough for mail/web/wordproc/etc?

Anyhow, that's all I've time to comment on. I don't discount Negroponte's efforts, I just hope people look beyond the sexiness of the idea and consider the other issues and alternative solutions.

[Oh, and another thing that irked me about the project was the appearance of other MIT research tech (the display) appearing within there. Is this really the best solution, or is it some research lab politicking going on? Either way, the falloff curve they predict for that display tech is, well, very similar to other ivory tower falloff curves that were never realized. e.g. read anything on e-paper from 5-8 years ago. Was supposed to have replaced your new york times by now!)


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you. In Nepal while electricity is generally available in a large part of the country through local generators and other local solutions (wind, water, etc), most villages don't have any access to communications other than satelite phones. And most don't even have roads, so forget getting the PC there other than on someone's back, which means it needs to be pretty sturdy. And getting replacement parts and service would be nearly impossible. Also, don't forget infrastructures: most houses are made of earth and are very humid, particularly in the witer - that means most PCs would probably rust (or freeze, it's ofter below zero at nights inside the houses!) in a short amount of time. Finally one big thing he's not thinking of is that most people in those countries are illiterate in their own language, let alone in english - so regardless the technology would still be inaccessible to most, unless it is accompanied by litteracy programs.... What has happened a lot in the bigger urban areas is services where one PC gets used for communications / on-line phone (many have family outside the country) and then someone is there to write emails and work the computer for people.

As you said the 100 dollar PC is a notable idea, but not thought through.
Thanks for that!

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