Computing in the developed markets over the past 25 years has been dominated by personal computers running DOS first and Windows later on x86 architecture chips. Intel and Microsoft have dominated this world. The past few years have seen the emergence of PDAs and smartphones which deliver a small but increasingly growing subset of functionality of the computer. It is now not uncommon to see to see emails with a footnote attesting to the fact that the email was sent via a Blackberry.
For all their success, computers are outnumbered by cellphones. In fact, for many in the emerging markets, the cellphone is the first personal device that they get. It is not just upper-class consumers and business users who are seen using cellphones. From vegetable sellers to construction workers, from auto-rickshaw drivers to fishermen, from teenagers to grandparents, the cellphone is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in emerging markets.
Both devices PCs and cellphones have their advantages and disadvantages. The full-size input-output attachments of a computer are unmatched as compared to the miniaturised (in comparison) display and keyboard of a cellphone. The computer also has a vast library of applications developed over the years. Its versatility to work in the home, business and educational context is what has made it one of the greatest inventions of our generation.
Yet, the computer remains largely a developed market gizmo. In emerging markets, its dollar-denominated cost has limited its appeal to a fraction of the potential user base. In recent times, manageability challenges have increased due to the proliferation of viruses and spyware specifically targeting the Windows platform. So, even as the top of the pyramid in emerging markets can use the computers, the next 90% remains a non-consumption market.
By contrast, the cellphone user base has grown phenomenally. In India, 2 million cellphones are purchased each month, about six times the sales figure of computers. While the cellphone caters to a natural desire for communications, its ease of use has no doubt helped. Even as cellphones become smarter, they will be limited by three factors in comparison to computers: the size of the keyboard, the resolution and size of the display, and the control exercised by the operator for services delivered to the device.
To bring the next set of users into the world of digital services needs a computer which borrows some ideas from the cellphone think of it as a thin client or a network commPuter. It is a device which is built assuming the existence of communications networks. It has the footprint of a computer with the affordability and manageability of a cellphone. The commPuter is a zero-management device which does almost no computing locally. It relies instead on a computing- and storage-centric grid for becoming useful. Think about it: the radio, television and the cellphone are useless without networks. It is time for the computer to also make the transition. This is the secret to building the Rs 5,000 ($100) computer about half of that covers the cost of the device, and the other half is the cost of a refurbished monitor. (The TV lacks the display resolution it is better to stick to a computer monitor.)