There is a virtually unlimited supply of thin clients available. Millions of computers are being disposed of annually by users and organisations in the developed world as they upgrade their desktops and laptops. These disposed computers have turned into a recycling problem for the developed nations. Most of these computers are in good working condition it is just that there are not fast enough to run the new generation of software for most users. The typical upgrade cycle for computers is 3-4 years, and the annual consumption of computers in the developed world is more than 60 million units. This ensures not only a large supply, but also one which is continuous. A fraction of this supply is good enough to meet the needs of the developing countries.
Shipping these computers to the emerging rural markets solves two problems the recycling problem in the developed world, and the need for an affordable computing infrastructure in the developing world. It is possible to take the computers being disposed, invest a small amount of money in their refurbishing, and ship them for use across the rural markets to serve as thin clients. The cost of this entire value chain will be no more than USD 100 (Rs 5,000).
Smart software running on the thick server ensures cutting-edge performance from these thin clients. In addition, because the computers are so cheap, it is possible to keep a few spare units in case one of the units stops working, it can be quickly replaced by another unit. There is no need for expensive maintenance engineers, which can be a problem in rural and remote areas.
The second building block is server-centric computing. A thick server handles the processing and storage. Moores Law is creating very powerful computers at ever lower prices. A new desktop costing about USD 500 (Rs 25,000) is more than good enough to become a thick server and support upto 4 thin clients. Shifting the processing and storage to the server also simplifies the administration of the computing infrastructure the server is the only system that needs to be managed.
The third building block is open-source software. Over the past decade, Linux has emerged as an equally good alternative to Microsoft Windows both on the desktop and server side. An ever-increasing pool of Linux developers and applications is now available. What open-source software offers is not just free software, but also the freedom to make changes as applicable to the software (provided the changes are themselves released in the public domain). What open-source software does is enables the leveraging of a vast applications base for a near-zero price.
The fourth building block is WiFi. The 802.11 set of standards use open spectrum to enable wireless connectivity across a distance of upto100 metres. While it is primarily seen as a local connectivity solution through hotspots, WiFi can become the fulcrum for rural connectivity in rural areas through the use of repeaters and antenna innovation. Recently, Media Lab Asia in India demonstrated how two points over a distance of over 50 kilometres could be connected by WiFi. Thus, the connectivity layer for the last mile for both voice and data applications could be WiFi.
Thus, taken together, the 5KPC ecosystem comprising of thin clients which are refurbished computers from the developed world, server-centric computing on new desktops, open-source software based on and around Linux to provide the applications base, and WiFi to provide connectivity, serves as the basic building block for an affordable and pervasive computing infrastructure across rural areas.
Tomorrow: TeleInfoCentre and RISC
TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India+T