The computing industry has had a great run for the past two decades. With hardware and software working in tandem to get users to upgrade every four years or so, the resulting price dips have got a new wave of users each time. The result is that the worlds computer user base stands at about 600 million. That is no mean accomplishment.
Yet, the benefits of computing have been largely limited to the developed markets and the very top of the pyramid in the emerging markets. In India, for example, the installed base of computers is only about 10-12 million. Even though Indians are buying 300,000 computers each month, this growth pales in comparison to that of cellphones. About 1.5 million new mobiles are being purchased every month on a much larger installed base of 35 million. The story is quite similar in many other emerging markets, though other than China, the quantities are much lower.
More than the cellphone, it is the computer which has the potential to transform the future for the worlds emerging markets. Be it education or healthcare, governance or business, entertainment or communications, the computers versatility can help overcome some of the infrastructure gaps that exist in these markets, and open up new vistas for businesses, consumers and students.
Yet, computing for emerging markets suffers from four key problems: affordability, desirability, accessibility and manageability. Even as there are efforts to make computing more affordable (as hardware prices continue to fall and Microsoft considers lower-cost versions of its Windows operating system in local languages), the challenges in taking computing to the next users are much deeper.
Unlike most other industries, the computer industry has two giants in Intel and Microsoft which control the supply of two most important components. The rest of the industry revolves around Intels CPU and Microsofts Windows-Office combo. If computing has to be made available to the next-generation of users, this Wintel stranglehold needs to be broken.
Various visions of the future of computing have been put forward. From Mark Weisers ubiquitous computing dream to Don Normans information appliances as invisible computers to the human-centred computing ideas of Michael Dertouzos, Jef Raskin and Ben Shneiderman, there have been various efforts to define the future of computing. Many companies have also tried to create alternative platforms. The Network Computer and WebTV are two examples from the past. The Simputer is one effort from the present. AMDs soon-to-be-launched $200 Emma, Smartphones like the Treo 600 and Apples iPoD are, perhaps, harbingers of the future.
All such prognostications and products have suffered from two flaws. First, their primary focus has been on the developed markets where computers have a near-universal penetration. They tend to ignore todays non-users in the worlds emerging markets. Second, they have looked at only one or two dimensions of the computing ecosystem. As I will argue later, what is needed is a set of rainbow revolutions to make a difference.
To reinvent computing, six challenges need to be overcome, five goals need to be met, and seven revolutions need to happen. This is what will start the next 12-year tech cycle which will bring in the billion users across the worlds emerging markets.
Tomorrow: Six Challenges