A Computer for Rs 5,000

I wrote an article for The Economic Times supplement “India Rising” [it appeared a couple days ago]:

India Shining has been, among other things, about building Indias physical infrastructure. Yet, Indias digital infrastructure lags with an installed base of just 10 million computers. The computer is arguably one of the most important creations of the past quarter century. It has bridged divides, transformed industries, and been at the heart of the IT revolution that has been one of the key anchors of Indias growth as an outsourcing centre. But much of India still remains untouched by the computer revolution. What we need is an India Computing drive to ensure that there is a connected computer accessible to every family and every employee in India.

The computer can be the vehicle for opening up new windows and opportunities. For the first generation of users over the past quarter century, it has done just that. Neither the TV nor the telephone (or the cellphone) can match the computers interactive platform which enables its users to connect to each other, information and applications. The PC has engineered the technology and productivity revolution in the developed markets in the past two decades, flanked by the Internet and cheap connectivity. So, the question is: how can the PC now be taken across the digital divide to the next generation of users?

One of the key factors that has inhibited the growth of computers in India is their cost. Even with the recent reduction in duty, the computer still costs Rs 18-20,000. Add the price of legal software and the investment can touch Rs 45-50,000. So far, the options in India have been non-consumption of hardware and piracy of software. Both are not going to take us far.

We can learn from the mobile phone revolution that has permeated across India in the past two years. India is now adding 2.5 million new cellphone users each month, on a base of 30 million. In comparison, new computers are being added at just over a tenth at 300,000 each month.

Both TVs and cellphones took off in India when the price points dropped to the Rs 5,000 level. Something similar needs to take place with computers. What India needs to build a mass market for computers is an affordable computing solution one which combines the business model of a cellphone combined with functionality, footprint and versatility of a computer. How do we make it happen? Think Disruptive Innovation.

Wrote Stuart Hart and Clayton Christensen in Sloan Management Review: Disruptive Innovations compete against non-consumption that is, they offer a product or service to people who would otherwise be left out entirely or poorly served by existing products and who are therefore quite happy to have a simpler, more modest version of what is available in the high-end markets.

To take computing to the masses in India, we need to rethink the design of the personal computer. In the late 1970s and early 1980s when the PC was architected, networks did not exist. The PC was, in effect, a standalone device. This is no longer the case now. Local area networks and broadband networks offer high-speed, always-on connectivity. In addition, the continuous progress in semiconductors has ensured that processing power is available quite inexpensively. As a result, it is possible to think of a thin client with processing and storage taking place on a thick server. This disruptive innovation is the Rs 5,000 PC (5KPC).

The 5KPC is, in essence, a network computer. It lights up in the presence of a network. This is very similar to a cellphone or a television today. Both need networks to function. Without the cellular network, the cellphone is little more than a clock and good for a few games. Without the cable network, the television screen displays only static. In fact, think of some of the other devices we use our regular landline telephone and radio. Both are network devices in the sense that without the connectivity they are useless.

The 5KPC never needs to be upgraded all the processing happens on the server in the network. This is one of the reasons its administration is simplified. (We rarely need to call customer support for our telephone.) For the 5KPC, the network connectivity is what makes it come alive the network provides the digital dial-tone.

This simplification also ensures that the 5KPC is a zero-maintenance device the next set of users are not going to be half as savvy as the first generation in worrying about upgrades, device drivers and the like. Also, they are likely to be deployed in markets where customer support may not be easy to get. In addition, the 5KPC is rugged because there are no moving parts, it can work in various conditions and requires a lot less power.

The idea of server-centric computing is not new in itself. Mainframe and minicomputers earlier used the same principle of centralised computing. What is innovative in the 5KPC is that we are applying it to the desktop without compromising the functionality or performance of the computer in any way.

Combined with open-source software built on Linux, the 5KPC can be at the vanguard of a digital revolution in India. It opens up new markets which hitherto have remained invisible because of the high cost of computing. India has an opportunity to absorb 100 million computers in the next 5 years:

  • 1 million schools need 10 computers each for enabling primary and secondary education
  • 100,000 colleges need 100 computers each to ensure digitally literate graduates
  • 3 million small- and medium-sized enterprises need to computer-enable their 30 million information-driven workforce
  • 40 million urban and semi-urban families need a computer
  • 5 million staff in government need computers to build the foundation for electronic and efficient governance
  • 5,000 hubs in rural India need 1,000 computers each to provide newer opportunities beyond agriculture and provide a foundation for transforming Bharat

    The market for the 5KPC extends beyond India. It provides the core for the computing platform for the next 500 million users in the world, primarily from the emerging markets. By itself, it will not bridge the digital divide, increase growth rates or eliminate poverty. But for the worlds poorest countries, the 5KPC can be an equaliser. It can open up new vistas and fire up peoples imaginations. After that, it is to the individuals and the enterprises to convert these openings into dramatically better futures. It is up to this generation of entrepreneurs to go and build out the 5KPC Ecosystem. India has the right mix to lead the way hardware design and assembly skills, software development talent, a growing workforce to offer complementary services, and most importantly, a captive domestic market.

  • Published by

    Rajesh Jain

    An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.