The USD 100 Desktop Computer in a thin client-thick server configuration provide the computing base to help proliferate technology much beyond the numbers we have seen in the past 25 years. In the past quarter century, coinciding with the dominance of Microsoft in software, the installed computer has gone from nearly nothing to 500 million. There is an opportunity of a similar magnitude in the next 7-10 years: to build the software platform for the next 500 million computers which will be adopted by people and organisations living and serving the other side of the digital divide.
This software platform cannot cost hundreds of dollars for software. The result at these price points is there in front of us: large-scale piracy which hinders the incentive for software makers to targets these markets. Software has to be thought bottom-up in an innovative manner which that the entire suite of applications is available for no more than USD 5 (Rs 250) per person per month. This calls for an organisation to investing the equivalent of Rs 10 per business day on each of its employees for software. They will do so if they can see the productivity improvements at least yielding them that much benefit per day. Thought of in this manner, software becomes much more of a utility than an IT accessory.
To achieve these price points, software will need to be built on an open source platform, but with incentives for developers to spend time localising and customizing applications for the needs of their markets. The building blocks already exist: Linux as the operating system, KDE and Gnome as the graphical user interfaces, Mozilla as the email client and Web browser, Jabber for instant messaging, OpenOffice (which has served as the base for Star Office – Sun will soon be charging USD 100 for Star Office) for the suite of desktop productivity applications (including a word processor, a spreadsheet and presentation software) and Apache as the web server. What is needed is for software developers to build “Lego-like” on top of these applications and contribute their work back to the open source community, strengthening and extending the base.
Software applications for bridging the digital divide will need to support local languages and voice input/output. In India itself, there are over fifteen languages in use. Technology must connect to the people in their language. Voice becomes important because the keyboard may not always be the best mode of input, especially given the complexities of some of the languages. With a limited vocabulary, it should be possible to make voice recognition work well to interact with a much larger mass of people than just English can enable.