Right from using regular desktops in cybercafes to owning (or renting) cheaper desktops and network computers to using mobile phones to connect over wireless networks, the next billion users will have something they have never had before in computing: choice. Thats perhaps the best thing to have happened from the attention that is being lavished on the bottom of the pyramid. Having said that, not all solutions are equal. My bet is on two solutions to emerge winners over the coming years: mobiles and network computers. The common thread to both is the dependency on a network. The business model will be along the lines of an upfront payment of about $100 (Rs 5,000) for the device and about $10 (Rs 500) a month for connectivity, content, services and support.
To understand why I think these network devices will emerge as winners, it is important to understand that the problem with todays computing solutions is not just about affordability. It is also about manageability. Complexity in computing has increased, not decreased, over the years. Users have to become their own system administrators to ensure their computers stay clean and secure. The next users are not going to be as savvy as the first set of users in managing their computers.
Into this brave new world, the disruption to be leveraged is the world of communications. Both wired and wireless broadband networks are being deployed in emerging markets. Given the importance of Internet access and the coming era of software-as-a-service, the computers role is now more of a window to the world of information residing in the network.
In addition, almost every new user of computing in developing nations is likely to be already using a mobile phone. After voice, SMS, and not email, is the preferred form of communication. Buddy lists are not maintained in instant messaging clients on PCs but on the mobile. The mobile as the users first interactive personal device in emerging markets is a very different scenario from the developed markets, where it was the PC which came first.
Tomorrows world will, therefore, revolve around computing and information which happens in the network (the cloud), with the users having access to two devices: a small screen mobile phone which they carry with them all the time, and a bigger screen desktop-based terminal which connects over a broadband network to which they have intermittent access. Both devices have their strengths. The big screen is better for applications which are input-output-intensive and require multimedia. The mobile is with us all the time and can be used during lifes empty moments.
This is not to say that the OLPC and other initiatives will fail. I think they will succeed in specific areas but they will not become the mass-market successes that emerging markets need. For that, my bets are around the mobile for internet access and network computing.
PS: The full series is here.