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TECH TALK: The Network Computer: The Fifth Option

October 13th, 2004 · 1 Comment

The network computer that I am envisioning is a $60-$65 (Rs 3,000) device, excluding the display. In India, a refurbished colour monitor (about 3-4 years old) would cost about Rs 2,000, while a new monitor would cost about Rs 4,000. Thus, the network computer would cost about Rs 5,000-7,000 ($110-150). This is 50-65% lower than the equivalent cost of a personal computer today, and a little more than the cost of a mobile phone.

Let us delve into the network computer a little more and discuss the hardware composition, the software on it, and the connectivity options.

From a hardware standpoint, the network computer needs to use a platform that is commoditised. That provides us with two options an x86 base or using chips that are used in cellphones. The x86-base would probably create a much more costly solution. What we really need is a processor that costs $5-10, and thus can keep the overall system cost to no more than $50, including packaging. The two important characteristics of the design are the need to support an OS like Linux and be able to drive a standard VGA display. A bonus benefit would be the ability to manage multimedia encoding and decoding in hardware on the client-side this would allow efficient use of the client-server bandwidth while handling audio and video applications.

The software on the device needs to do two things: provide an OS which can drive the various peripherals (keyboard, mouse, display, network, USB ports, audio in and out), and support a remote display protocol like VNC (virtual network computer). The OS can be Linux.

On the connectivity front, it will be necessary for the network computer to support a wide range of options, though not necessarily on the same device. After all, without connectivity to the network, the device would be useless. The various networking options would be Ethernet (for LANs), Wi-Fi (so as to eliminate the need for cabling) and perhaps, GSM and CDMA. The wireless options could be supported via an onboard software radio, which could dynamically use the most appropriate connectivity option.

In addition, the network computer will need power. This can be provided for via the mains. Some versions of the network computers could also come with battery support these versions are more likely to resemble cellphones and come with integrated keyboard-display modules so as to create an integrated unit.

Technologically, the network computer is not a very radical device. It doesn’t need to do, and should not be. It should essentially provide all that a desktop computer provides, except that storage and processing are not done on the device. It should be possible to build such a device for about $50-60.

The natural question: how does one make money selling the device? The short answer: one doesn’t.

Tomorrow: Business Model


TECH TALK The Network Computer+T

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