Business Line Front Page

Our Rs 5,000 PC (5KPC) idea made it to the front page of Business Line, a story written by Chitra Phadnis and entitled “5K PC to bridge the digital divide”:

In two weeks’ time, the marketing strategy for a new PC, which costs a little over around Rs 5,000, should be ready.

Two companies – Via Technologies and NetCore (promoted by Mr Rajesh Jain of the India World fame) are jointly making this possible by bringing down prices of hardware and software respectively. The 5KPC, as Mr Jain calls it, is expected to revolutionise the usage of computers.

Today, price is the biggest factor hindering PC penetration, and the 5KPC, which is targeted at the mass market, should help bridge the digital divide, said the two companies. It is not a replacement for the desktop, so much as a device that will open up markets that did not exist till now, said Mr Jain.

The Via machine is a thin client, with a motherboard and processor but no hard disk or floppy drives. Marketed with a full OS – Netcore’s Emergic Freedom, based on Linux – it offers e-mail, browser, office suite, instant messenger and supports specialised Windows applications through add-on software.

“Several hundred” of these machines have already been sold in India, said Mr Ravi Pradhan, Country Manager – India, Via, at initial prices slightly over Rs 5,000.

Mr Pradhan, who exhibited the product in Bangalore recently, said that hardware costs had been beaten down by designing and manufacturing in Taiwan.

Profit margins for the distributors have been kept deliberately low and the company is betting on volumes for growth. A low-cost Via C3 CPU, compatible with Celeron and Pentium 3, has also helped reduce costs.

Software prices are lower, thanks to Netcore’s Linux-based Emergic Freedom operating system. Mr Jain calculates that the total spend on software could come down by 75 per cent.

The 5KPC works in a way similar to the cell phone or a television, coming “alive” only in the presence of a network. Users can simply log onto a network and start working. The server would provide the software applications.

An organisation or a small area (say a village), a single desktop would be the server and users with individual 5KPCs could connect to it. One hitch is that the users need to always stay connected to the network.

However, Mr Jain believes that the cable network and the emerging wireless connectivity (prices of which are expected to drop this year) could make this affordable.

The pluses are the TCO (total cost of ownership) comes down significantly. There is no need to upgrade software – one upgrade on the central server is enough. The hardware is low maintenance and there is no need to upgrade it at all. The Via and Netcore joint product is being seen as the computing platform for the “next 500 million consumers” in the world, offering the “other 90 per cent” a chance to use technology to improve their lives.

On a separate note, there is also a snippet about Netcore in today’s Economic Times. I couldn’t find a link online.

Feedster, Snarf and RSS2Mail

Some interesting developments on the RSS front.

Scott Johnson has launched Feedster, an RSS Search engine. It is a nice and simple idea, allowing one to get to a blog post. What is really needed is exactly that – the ability to go beyond RSS to search at the granularity of a blog post. Not all RSS feeds have the blog post in its entirety, but it should be possible to take a blog and decompose it into its posts, with help from the RSS feed.

SNARF! is a Simple News Aggregator for RSS Feeds.

For the past few days, I have been using an idea we have been developing internally – an RSS2Mail hosted service. Create an account on a central server (could also be on the LAN), which aggregates RSS feeds and distributes it via email in a separate IMAP account. Very simple to set-up and use, but it leverages the same email interface that we are so comfortable with – no need to run download a separate RSS Aggregator. Using this definitely increases the information (in this case, blog posts) that I can process by 10x – this is disruptive!

Social Network Analysis

Steven Johnson (author of Emergence) writes about new software which analyses the informal groups that permeate our personal and work lives. The beginning is fascinating:

In his classic novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut explains how the world is divided into two types of social organizations: the karass and the granfalloon. A karass is a spontaneously forming group, joined by unpredictable links, that actually gets stuff done as Vonnegut describes it, “a team that do[es] God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing.” A granfalloon, on the other hand, is a “false karass,” a bureaucratic structure that looks like a team but is “meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done.”

No doubt you’ve experienced these two types of networks in your own life, many times over. The karass is that group of friends from college who have helped one another’s careers in a hundred subtle ways over the years; the granfalloon is the marketing department at your firm, where everyone has a meticulously defined place on the org chart but nothing ever gets done. When you find yourself in a karass, it’s an intuitive, unplanned experience. Getting into a granfalloon, on the other hand, usually involves showing two forms of ID.

For most of the past 50 years, computers have been on the side of the granfalloons, good at maintaining bureaucratic structures and blind to more nuanced social interactions. But a new kind of software called social-network mapping promises to change all that.

One of the applications is in analysing emails to “create a remarkably sophisticated assessment of your various social groups, showing you not only their relative size but also the interactions between different groups.”

We also need to think how we can use this to analyse blogs and get the clusters that (informal) bloggers are part of.

Social Entrepreneurship

NYTimes writes that “in increasing numbers, high-tech entrepreneurs who grew wealthy during the dot-com boom of the late 1990’s as well as many who didn’t are turning the intense business acumen they once devoted to making money to working for what they see as the global good…These New Age saviors are trying to build water purifiers, manual irrigation pumps, low-cost solar collectors, hearing aids, even highly durable mosquito nets. ”

One that I found interesting (from the point of view of Rural Markets) is “an Idealab venture, called Energy Innovations, which is making inexpensive solar collectors to sell in places needing cost-effective power.”

Web Server in RJ45 Connector

From Slashdot comes a link to the XPort by Lantronix, which “includes an 80186 controller, an OS, the TCP/IP stack, a 10/100 Ethernet transceiver, and the LAN interface magnetics.” The downside is that “the serial interface to the controller tops out at 300 kbps. ” The cost is USD 33 (in 10K quantities).

Am thinking if this can be used as a thin client.

Rural TeleInfoCentre Locations

My father (who grew up in a village in Rajasthan) listed out the various entities in and around a village which could play host to a TeleInfoCentre (the equivalent of a computer-and-communications centre – I’ll be discussing this concept in detail in my Tech Talk series later):

– petrol pump
– railway station
– bus stands/depot
– school
– hospital
– panchayat office
– road-side hotels / restaurants / dhabas
– entrepreneurial farmers / shopkeepers
– local industrial units
– post office
– police station
– local bank branch

TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: International Rural ICT Projects

Bridging the digital divide through technology has been the focus of many initiatives worldwide. Madanmohan Rao provides a summary of various such projects in his report on the IT Summit 2002 held in Nepal:

FarmNet (for agricultural workers in Uganda)
Nabweru and Buwama telecentres (for economic empowerment of women in Uganda)
Rural Multipurpose Community Telecentres (libraries and online centres in Benin, Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda)
MahilaWeb (for information sharing about women and gender in Nepal)
Pakissan (for farmers in Pakistan)
PeopLink (artisans portal for 22 developing countries)
Tortas (e-commerce portal for homemade cakes made by Peruvian women)
Bankilare (a community network in Niger)
Across Borders (connecting Palestinians in refuge camps)
MarketWatch (price information service in Mongolia)
Nairobits (Web services centre for slum children in Kenya)
Street Children Telecentre (for IT skills in Ecuador)
Mountain Forum (for knowledge sharing on mountainous region communities in over 100 countries on topics like renewable energy, agro-industry, potato research)
Virtual Souk (for underprivileged artisans in the Middle East and North Africa)
Multipurpose Community Telecentres (in four farming and fishing villages of northern Mindanano in the Philippines)
GrameenPhone (in Bangladesh)
HealthInfo (for IT among health workers in Ethiopia)
Village Leap (for selling scarves made by Cambodian women)
Metrocomia (outsourced Web services centres in about a dozen countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia),
Communications Boat Project (to bring IT tools via boats to Amazonian communities)

Malaysia has come up with a number of “demonstration applications” such as Project Cybercare for providing Internet access and educational resources among 26 networked orphanages and a telecentre called e-Bario has also been set up for the Kelabit ethnic community in rural Sarawak.

Examples in India include:

TaraHaat (for e-marketing in rural areas)
AkashGanga (for dairy cooperatives in Gujarat)
Warna Wired Village Project (for sugarcane farmers in Maharashtra)
HoneyBee Network (documenting grassroots innovations for knowledge on sustainable natural resource management)
Gyandoot (community centre network in rural Madhya Pradesh).

The National Informatics Centre is proposing a “Rural Studio” initiative for developing reusable software components and services for the rural development sector, and IndianVolunteers.org networks volunteers interested in such initiatives.

Kerala is rolling out an “e-governance grid” via a network of information kiosks providing sales tax forms, income certificates, domicile certificates, ration card forms, and company registration.

We will take a closer look at some of the Indian projects, beginning with the one which has generated the maximum interest Madhya Pradeshs Gyandoot.

Tomorrow: Gyandoot

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