The challenge: how can the cost of the desktop be brought down dramatically? The building block for the desktop is undoubtedly Linux, but much more has to be done in order to convert it from an interesting and free software to one which can serve the needs of the mass enterprise market.
Our aim is to create a computing solution which can be adopted by enterprises in India. The objective is not necessarily to target the consumer market. Between the large enterprises (who have the money to buy any solution at any price) and the consumers (who want a lot of goodies for the lowest possible price) is a huge market of small and medium enterprises who want to (and need to) use computers for their core business applications.
Here are 10 components of a solution which can increase by 10x the use of computing among Indian enterprises:
- Aggregate Applications: For most users, a collection of 4-5 applications is good enough to take care of all their needs. These applications include: Email, Browser, Instant Messenger, Word Processor, Spreadsheet, and of course a Graphical User Interface (Windowing system). All of these applications are available on Linux in the form of Netscape, Jabber, Star Office and the KDE/GNOME desktop environments. What is needed is that can be integrated together to provide a seamless feel that MS-Windows and MS-Office have.
- Run off a CD: All the applications should run off the CD on the desktop – mails, files and user preferences should be stored on the server. By eliminating the hard disk on the desktop, not only does the cost come down but also maintenance becomes much easier since there is just the motherboard to worry about. Users cannot download anything on the desktop, and each system is interchangeable. Every few months, a new CD can be sent out with the newest versions of the applications. Just put the CD in the system, and boot right off it. A new twist to the thin client philosophy!
- Add the Hardware: In the market today, it is almost impossible to get a computer for less than Rs 25-30,000. It will have the latest processor at 1+ Ghz. Most companies don’t need this, and this is where costs can be reduced dramatically. Because Linux can run very well on slower processors, one can use lag technologies – processors which are in the 400-500 Mhz range. It is hard to get them now, but motherboards containing them are available if you look. The hardware cost (motherboard, memory, network card) should be no more
than Rs 10,000 (USD 200). Add another Rs 5,000 for the CD-ROM drive, keyboard, monitor and mouse and there is a fully working system for under Rs 15,000.
- Support Local Languages: The applications should be available in English and various Indian languages. This requires work in terms of translations and fonts (and their availability in open source). But this is the only way to take computing to a much greater penetration, and make it a utility. Linux is the perfect base on which to build on. There are various efforts to support Indian languages in India. Most of these have so far been academic in nature. There needs to be a market pull which can provide greater impetus to these efforts. This pull is not going to come from consumers but from enterprises, especially in second-level towns and cities across India and the rural areas.
- Create Enterprise Applications: The hardware and software as part of the desktop is only the beginning. What is needed is to create an ecosystem which encourages enterprises to deploy these systems and developers to create products and customised applications on this base. The initial set of applications is good enough as a start, but more specialised applications for the enterprise will be needed. No way can Indian companies afford to pay the prices charged by the likes of SAP, Peoplesoft and Oracle. We need the equivalent of the generics manufactured by Indian pharma companies. We need low-cost, less-featured enterprise applications relevant to our local context. These can run off servers within the enterprise, and be distributed via the Internet. To make this possible, defined interfaces are needed to attract a set of developers. In addition, the enterprise software building blocks should use the Web Services standards (XML, SOAP, UDDI and WSDL). This will make it possible to create larger structures using the blocks like Software Lego.