TECH TALK: Tomorrow’s World: NetPC and NetGrid

Continuing with our little peep into the future

So what else is new, you might ask. Isn’t this what millions of users do all over the world? They do but not in middle class India. Or at least, they could not till about late 2005 in middle-class India. What Meena was using was a NetPCa device that displays a remote desktop over a broadband connection while all the processing, the applications, and content are on a centralised grid computer (NetGrid) which delivers computing as a utility much like electricity, telephony, or television.

Middle-class India is poor by developed country standards. About 40 million households with annual incomes of between Rs 1 lakh to 5 lakhs ($2,200 to 11,000) constitute the middle-class. Even at rock-bottom prices of Rs 18,000 ($400) for a PC, a vanishingly small number of middle-class households can afford one and even then, among those who can afford one, most don’t find a PC very useful because of PCs don’t deliver a rich enough portfolio of services to justify the expense.

A disruptive change occurred in late 2005. Computing was released from being tied to a PC and became available to a very large number of users as a utility much the same as electricity, water, and telephone service were. The change was brought about by three distinct innovations which mutually supported each other. First, was the availability of a NetPC, an access device that had the look and feel of a PC but at a price that was comparable to that of a cellular handset or about Rs 5,000 ($110). Second, the wide availability of inexpensive broadband connectivity throughout cities in India. Finally, the creation of a computing platform which aggregated within it all the processing power and storage sitting in individual PCs and made available a very wide range of applications and content which could be accessed from all across the country using the NetPCs.

This disruptive change allowed the rapid adoption of computing in more than 40 million homes and about 50 million other people in small and medium business and in educational institutions. The adoption was rapid because four principal barriers to the use of computers were lowered: Affordability, Desirability, Accessibility and Manageability.

PCs are hard to manage and administer, what with installation of software, frequent upgrades, spam, viruses, and so on. Desirability of using computing is directly related to how relevant the applications and content available to the user. Accessibility is important in an economy where everyone cannot afford to own a dedicated piece of equipment and needs shared access to computing facilities. Affordability is related to how low the entry barrier can be as regards to the capital equipment needed.

What NetPCs (along with the NetGrid) did was revolutionize the whole concept of computing for the masses. And in doing so, it made two other markets viable. First, it changed the broadband connectivity market. By making computing a utility delivered over broadband, it created the demand side of the market. That large demand brought economies of scale to bear on the supply of broadband connectivity and thus pushed costs and prices to levels that made the market work.

The second market it enabled was the market for applications from independent software vendors. Piracy caused the market to fail: Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) would not develop applications because they could not recover the cost of development. Lack of specialised applications lead to low desirability for computers which in turn depressed the applications market further. NetGrid provided a platform for ISVs to bring their applications to market free from the piracy issue.

The question is: how do we make this future a reality? The five dimensions we need to address are: devices, networks, infrastructure, services and payments.

Tomorrow: Devices

TECH TALK Tomorrow’s World+T

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.