To make affordable computing a reality for the mass-market, it is not that the Rs 5,000 Personal Computer (5KPC) is the only option. There can be other candidates a handheld computer (PDA), the TV and set-top-box combo, a data-enabled cellphone are three other possibilities. Let us discuss each of them.
The handheld computer or the PDA has been touted for a long time as the way to get mass-market adoption for computing. One such example out of India is the Simputer. While these are all laudable initiatives, I dont think they will ever become mass-market computing devices for a number of reasons: the size of the display is too small, data entry is a hassle, mobility and portability are not essential for most users, and the price-points will still be on the higher side. My belief is that most of the new users need a full-fledged desktop, with a 14 or 15-inch monitor and a proper keyboard. The PDAs can, at best, become adjuncts to the desktop, but not replace the need for it.
The TV with a set-top box is a second option. The problem with the TV approach is on four counts. Firstly, the display resolution still does not match that of a computer monitor. The TV may be good for showing the rich graphical worlds for games, but it does not yet display the text and numbers that most users need for their basic applications. Secondly, the TV is synonymous with leisure and entertainment, and is used in the lean-back mode. The PC is used in the lean-forward forward for study and work. So, for the kind of uses that we envision for the computer, the TV is not suited from a mental image that we have of it. Thirdly, the TV is present in homes and not in the workplace. Finally, even at home, the TV has alternate uses as an entertainment device in most cases, it is shared by multiple family members. Try wanting to check email when prime-time soaps are going on in the evening
The wireless or Java-enabled cellphone could be the third alternative. The cellphone suffers from similar drawbacks as the PDA. The numerical-oriented keypad makes it hard to do a lot of extended data entry (even though SMS has become popular in much of the world) and the display size is quite small. The cellphone can become an accessory to the computer, but will not be able to replace it as the primary device for information work.
So, I believe that the road to making computing a utility and ensuring its widespread deployment is to look at the Rs 5,000 PC. And as we saw last week, it is definitely possible to bring down the price-points as long as we accept the existence of a network. (In fact, both the cellphone and the TV are useless without the network.) The question we now need to consider is how can the 5KPC make a difference to our lives. Which are the market segments it will impact and how? How will the future be different with the 5KPC?
Tomorrow: The Markets
TECH TALK The Rs 5,000 PC Ecosystem+T