Wanted: USD 50 Thin Client

I have been thinking about this for some time. How do we get a really low cost thin client? Think of it as a “virtual PC”. All processing and storage on the server with Emergic Freedom software. A USD 50 thin client combined with a thick server can really explode the computing markets in countries like India.

So, how do we get to a USD 50 thin client? Actually, this cost threshold is for a black box, excluding the keyboard, mouse and monitor. For a USD 50 (Rs 2,300) “black box”, we probably need a USD 10 CPU and a USD 30 motherboard. The box needs to have five connectors: for keyboard, mouse, monitor, LAN and power. It needs to be able to run “vnc” on the software side, on some OS. The processing capability on the client side needs to be no more than 66-100 Mhz with 2 MB RAM at most.

Options:
– old computers (in India, there is a problem: a USD 200 anti-dumping import duty on second-hand PCs)
– single-board computer design (based on 486-type architectures)
– PDAs
– set-top boxes
– cellphones

Ideally, I want to use something which does not need large investments in R&D or manufacturing – meaning it should be available off-the-shelf, or need only a little reconfiguration of an existing design.

What is the potential market for this? In India alone, I can estimate 30 million units over the next 5 years – going into SMEs. Multiply this by a few times as we go across the world. This is what the next generation of computing users need. This is the Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem I wrote about earlier – think of the problem now as the $50TC (USD 50 Thin Client).

How does one make this happen? Any suggestions?

RSS as Disruptive Innovation

F. Andy Seidl writes:

Clayton Christensen’s excellent book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, describes the conditions under which an emerging technology can suddenly become capable of replacing an existing, well-established technologya process known as disruption. A common theme is that the emerging technology matures addressing an unrelated market segment. E-mail, Weblogs, and RSS fit the model, beautifully.

E-mail is the killer app of killer apps; well established, widely adopted, and from most perspectives, invincible. RSS is a simple, de-facto standard for syndicating web content. RSS was never intended to threaten e-mail and, until recently it did not. But, to paraphrase an expression, Unintended Consequences Happen. RSS turned out to be very valuable in the world of Weblogs. Weblogs presented a great opportunity for RSS to solve real problems andand this is a big “and”mature in the process.

Simultaneously, e-mail has become plagued with spam, greatly altering the value proposition of e-mail, in general. And guess what? RSS offers spam-free communication channels. Suddenly, the relative value propositions of e-mail vs. RSS begin to look different.

I agree that RSS is a “disruptive innovation” – not as much in the context of email, but information publishing and distribution.

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The Future of Email

Dan Gillmor asks where does email go from here?

Like so many other people, I’m losing my patience. E-mail may be essential, but it’s in danger of becoming more trouble than it’s worth. I’m finding ways to work around it.

Chances of fixing the spam problem anytime soon: next to zero.

Chances of stopping worms and viruses anytime soon: just above zero.

Chances of Microsoft doing the right thing voluntarily: just about zero.

Chances of more users and administrators getting with the program: better than zero, but not nearly high enough.

Chances of ISPs doing a better job: above zero, and growing.

It’s too soon to give up on e-mail. But the medium may become literally unusable if we don’t work collectively to be less vulnerable.

Dan’s solution:

First, I will not open e-mail attachments, period, unless I know the item is coming beforehand or have extremely good reasons to believe it’s not carrying an evil payload. If you want me to see a file such as a PDF document, post it on a Web site and let me know where to find it.

Second, I’m being more selective. I have several private e-mail addresses that I give out only to a small number of people for vital communications.

Third, I’m trying to get away from e-mail as much as possible in any event. My favorite way of communicating online is instant messaging. That doesn’t work when I’m not connected. But it’s much better than slogging through 500 unwanted messages in an inbox to find the few I need.

I’m also encouraging e-mail newsletter people to use the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) format that lets me opt into information sources in other ways and shuts out spammers.

Arnold Kling adds his voice to the email-virus-spam debate: “Reconfigure email servers so that a sender can either send email that includes attachments or send email to multiple recipients, but not both. If you want to send email to multiple recipients, you must use only plain text, with no attachments. If you want to send email to just one recipient, then use HTML and attachments to your heart’s content. If you want to send HTML and attachments to a lot of people, set up a web page, and use the email to point to the web page. Or use some other protocol.”

Linux Switching Cost

InfoWorld takes a closer look and concludes: “The more fully an enterprise adopts Linux across its infrastructure, the more financial leverage it is likely to get out of up-front investments in the OS. Those investments, which can be considerable, include Linux training and tools, and the costs of migrating from a Unix or Windows environment. And that financial leverage is improving steadily as better management tools, more third-party vendor support, and more skilled Linux system administrators arrive on the market.”

One area where Linux excels is remote system administration. Writes InfoWorld:

Remote administration on a Windows box continues to be painful compared to a Linux box, although Microsoft prominently markets “low-bandwidth access to data” with Windows 2003. A former colleague of mine who has gotten into Linux systems administration after an early career in the Windows world told me recently (and I paraphrase): When you have a problem with a Linux box, you launch SSH (Secure Shell) to access it, take a quick look at the process table, and generally figure out what’s going on in about a minute. With Windows, despite advances in Terminal Server and improvements with remote management solutions such as pcAnywhere, you’re still facing a clunky progression through various GUIs to get to the heart of the problem. With Linux, you can have the problem solved in the same time it might take to get a Windows login screen. For a lights-out environment, the advantage of quick and easy remote administration can’t be overstated.

One of the ways this could be leveraged (and one which we have been thinking of) is to set-up a remote Linux services centre from Mumbai. Have a problem, tell us. We are already managing 500+ Linux mail servers across India with a support staff of 8 from our office here. Maybe we should look at expanding this.

Microsoft and SMEs

From a NYTimes article:

Microsoft has identified business software for small and medium-sized companies as a market ripe for growth. The idea is to use software to make e-commerce easy and affordable for these companies in the Internet era, much as the electronic spreadsheet gave them a tool for financial tracking and modeling in the personal computer era.

New versions of Microsoft’s small-business server products will go on sale this fall, starting at less than $1,000, including the computers from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others. The goal is to make Web sites, online brochures, sales, billing and customer service as easy and automated as possible for small businesses, with the final customization often done by the local technology consultants who are Microsoft partners.

Today, this software business generates about $500 million a year in revenue, but the target is a $1 billion rate a year from now. “That is what attracted me to this business,” said Mr. Ayala, who became the executive in charge of the small-business software group in March. “There are very few businesses that can grow 20 percent or 30 percent a year. This is one. We believe this can be a $10 billion business for us someday.”

Add this from News.com:

In October, Microsoft plans to start selling its Windows Server 2003 and its Exchange Server 2003 together for $599, the software maker said Wednesday. That price includes a license for up to five PCs, with discounted pricing on additional licenses available to companies that have up to 75 computers. The two-part bundle will be part of an update to Microsoft’s Windows Small Business Server line.

The existing product in that line is a larger collection of server software for $1,499. That bundle is slated to be updated in October, when it will go on sale as the “premium” edition. It will include Microsoft’s SQL Server database and another program that allows companies to set up a complex firewall to protect corporate data, according to the company.

Affordable solutions for SMEs is also what we want to focus on – the difference being our primary targets are the emerging markets like India. Affordability in our case means solutions that cost a tenth or less of what Microsoft charges.

Solar Power

NYTimes writes about a patent awarded to Dr. Anand Rangarajan and his colleague, Thomas McNulty, both of WorldWater Corporation, a solar-energy technology company in Pennington, NJ. The patent is for having invented a system for switching to backup solar power within seconds of a power failure.

The technology was first developed not with urban New Yorkers in mind but, rather, California farmers. With a state economy beset by an energy crisis in recent years, farmers in California have suffered blackouts at the worst times: on hot, dry days when crops most need to be irrigated by electrically powered systems.

Dr. Rangarajan and Mr. McNulty have essentially patented a box that combines switches and electrical circuits, permitting a supple integration between solar and electrical power. When the power grid is supplying electricity normally, the box routes excess power to the utility. If the power grid goes down, the box shuts off its connection with the utility, reconfigures voltages and routes electricity back to the irrigation system.

This permits current to keep flowing, but not along the power grid, which for safety considerations must not have any current moving on it while it is being repaired.

This seems to be exactly what the Indian farmers would also need! We should talk to WorldWater for RISC’s energy options.

TECH TALK: The Death and Rebirth of Email: Solution Ideas (Part 6)

Kevin Werbach advocates the use of white-lists to battle spam. This will, in effect, change email from an open system to a closed system. He wrote about this in Slate (November 18,2002):

Whitelists typically allow e-mail from everyone in a user’s existing address book. Other, unknown senders receive an automated reply, asking them to take further action, such as explain who they are. Or senders may be asked to identify a partially obscured image of a word. A person can make out the word, but automated spammer software can’t.

Whitelists are rare today, but they will become more common. The relentless growth of spam guarantees it. A filter that catches 80 percent of spam sounds great, and it is great if you get 10 spams a day. But when you get 500 a day, that same filter leaves you sorting through 100 opportunities to Make Money Fast!!!!!

Like it or not, the only way to kill spam is for an element of e-mail to die as well. There’s always been something charming and casual about e-mail. The informality comes through in the style people use to write messages, but also in where they send them. You’ve probably sent an e-mail to someone you’d never call on the phone, approach in person, or even write a letter to. Losing this aspect of e-mail is a shame, but it’s inevitable. E-mail will become more like instant messaging, with its defined “buddy lists.”

E-mail’s openness is doomed when faced with massive traffic and a few bad actors. The next time you try to reach out and touch someone electronically, you may need to know who that person is. Otherwise, you might be reaching out to no one.

An application which builds on Kevins idea further is Tagged Message Delivery Agent (TMDA):

TMDA is an open source software application designed to significantly reduce the amount of SPAM (Internet junk-mail) you receive. TMDA strives to be more effective, yet less time-consuming than traditional SPAM filters. TMDA can also be used as a general purpose local mail delivery agent to filter, sort, deliver and dispose of incoming mail.

The technical countermeasures used by TMDA to thwart SPAM include:
– whitelists: accept mail from known, trusted senders.
– blacklists: refuse mail from undesired senders.
– challenge/response: allows unknown senders which aren’t on the whitelist or blacklist the chance to confirm that their message is legitimate (non-SPAM).
– tagged addresses: special-purpose e-mail addresses such as time-dependent addresses, or addresses which only accept certain kinds of communication. These increase the transparency of TMDA for unknown senders by allowing them to safely circumvent the challenge/response system.

This combination was chosen based on the following assumptions about the current state of SPAM on the Internet:

1. You cannot keep your email address secret from spammers.
2. Content-based filters can’t distinguish SPAM from legitimate mail with sufficient accuracy.
3. To maintain economies of scale, bulk-mailing is generally: an impersonal process where the recipient is not distinguished. and a one-way communication channel (from spammer to victim).
4. SPAM will not cease until it becomes prohibitively expensive for spammers to operate.

Tomorrow: My Solution Ideas

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