Computers and monitors do not go bad in 3-4 years, which is the typical upgrade cycle in the developed world. They can easily be used for many more years, provided the processing and storage can be moved to the server. The thin clients become graphical terminals or more appropriately, PC Terminals.
The second approach to sourcing low-cost computers is to use computers with the VIA chipset and motherboard. VIA is the third company after Intel and AMD which makes x86-compatible CPUs. Their cheaper, lower-speed CPUs bring down the cost of the client, making it possible to get a new computer (excluding monitor) for prices as low as Rs 6,500 (USD 130). An old monitor costs Rs 2,000 (USD 40) while a new one costs double of that. A TV could also be used as a monitor, in case prices have to be brought down further.
The third approach is to use handheld computers, PDAs or cellphones as thin clients. The Simputer project in India has created a Linux PDA which is a full-fledged computer, at prices starting at Rs 10,000 (USD 200). Perhaps, it could be simplified further to work in a LAN environment as a thin client to bring the cost down to a more affordable Rs 5,000. Of course, this will mean that the users will get a smaller screen as compared to a 14-inch monitor from a regular desktop computer used as a thin client.
On the software front, the thin clients support all the basic applications that users would need: an email client, a web browser, an Office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation application), instant messaging, printing and the ability to read/write PDF files. There should be support for both English and local languages for each of the applications.
The software platform used is Linux, along with various open-source applications. This ensures a lower cost of ownership, along with the freedom to customise applications for the local needs. The various applications on Linux have become more than good enough in the past year, and can provide a desktop almost as good as Microsoft Windows.
For every key Windows application, there is an equivalent Linux application. Evolution from Ximian offers a mail client and personal information manager, creating an alternative for Outlook. Mozilla and derivatives like Phoenix and Galeon are web browsers which rival Internet Explorer. The OpenOffice suite of applications (Write, Calc and Impress) offers much of the functionality found in Microsoft Office (Word, Excel and PowerPoint). More importantly, it can read and write most MS-Office file formats. In addition, since it uses XML for native file storage, OpenOffice can be extended to build custom applications easily. OpenOffice also has a built-in utility to create PDF files.
GAIM is a unified Instant Messaging application which can connect to the IM platforms of Yahoo, AOL, ICQ and MSN. Adobe Acrobat is available on Linux. Multimedia support is available in the form of mplayer. Gimp is an image-editing software. Java and Flash work on Linux. Open-source databases are also available, in the form of MySQL and PostgreSQL.
The total cost of putting this suite of applications together: zero.
The combination of server-centric computing, low-cost clients and open-source software is the foundation for creating an affordable solution for the computing infrastructure at the TeleInfoCentre.
Tomorrow: TeleInfoCentre (continued)