TECH TALK: Technology’s Next Markets: Recycled Computers

Tech Talk: Lets talk about the first idea computers for USD 100. How do you propose to make that happen?

Deviant Entrepreneur: Recycle computers! Why do we discard computers after just 3-4 years of use? Consider this: in the US, even after the slowdown, business desktops are being upgraded after 41months which is long by their standards. We keep using cars, homes, even TVs. But computers users want the latest and greatest. In the context of what computers are being used by most people for send and receive email, access the Internet access, write letters, do spreadsheets, make presentations, and do IM it simply does not make sense to have multi-Gigahertz desktops.

But the problem is that with the software that runs on these machines. As Aaron Goldberg of Ziff-Davis says in Fortune, Windows XP doesnt run noticeably faster on your 2.4 Ghz Pentium 4 than it did on your 700 Mhz Celeron. Computers need to be upgraded simply to keep up with the newest software which runs on the desktops.

Let us rethink this architecture. Instead of thinking about fat desktops, what if we used fat servers and thin clients? Nothing new with this idea Sun has been advocating it for more than a decade, Novell had the same concept with its Netware. But at those times, the applications were client-centric, which drove the demand for increased processing power and memory, and LANs werent fast enough. Now, the situation is different applications are increasingly server-centric, and LANs run at speeds of 100 Mbps or more, allowing for server-centric computing.

In this situation, think about the following: what if the worlds emerging markets used the computers discarded by the developed markets and made them into thin clients? These clients dont need any hard disk or CD-ROM drive, they just made the bare minimum processing power and memory to run a windowing server (like the X Server). Essentially, the recycled PCs become graphical terminals, which connected to thick servers. All computing and storage happens on these servers.

Of course, it is possible to consider new, stripped down computers which cost USD 200-300 (in most cases, without a monitor, which will cost an additional USD 80-100). One could use these also, but it is definitely possible to get the older PCs at prices of USD 100 or so, shipped from the developed markets where they clutter up landfills and are an environmental hazard to the emerging markets, where they can continue their life. Motherboards dont die they keep running and running and running! So, lets use them.

At the heart of this thin client-thick server solution is the need for software which can convert these inanimate thin clients into livewire desktops. That is the real challenge. And that is where Linux and open source comes in.

TT: Will people use old computers?

DE: The analogy is Amuls Rs 20 (40 cents) pizza. It does not take away pizza eaters from the likes of Dominos or Pizza Hut, but opens up a whole new market for whom Amul makes the taste of pizza a reality.

So, the answer depends on the target market. People like you and me who are very computer-savvy (so-called power users) will not. But there is this entire segment at the bottom of the pyramid for whom there is no alternative. As Clay Christensen would have put it, the crummy old PC can actually delight these users for them, this will be their first (and only possible) taste of computing. After all, who cares whats under the hood? As long as the solution works and the computing experience is nearly as good, people will use them.

Tomorrow: Thin Client-Thick Server

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.