TECH TALK: Computing for the Next Billion: The Blue Ocean

I will be participating in a panel at Supernova on June 23rd in San Francisco on The Next Five Billion Users. The backdrop to the description: As developing countries increasingly join the networked world, what will change? Globalization is already having a huge impact on economies and societies, and it is only getting started. Though Internet access remains out of reach for much of the worlds population, profound changes are occurring as connectivity spreads through India, China, and elsewhere, with significant ripple effects in the West. This session will examine both how to close the global digital gap, and what will happen if we succeed.

Computing for the next billion users in emerging markets is what I have been thinking and writing about for the past few years, starting with my first Tech Talk on the Mass Market Internet in November 2000. I have also co-founded and invested in Novatium, which is working on developing network computers. I have written a number of columns over the past few years, accessible from the right panel of my blog on the theme of affordable computing.

During the past year or so, the focus on targeting the next billion users with computing solutions has increased dramatically. The most high-profile effort is led by Nicholas Negroponte with his $100 laptop project. Intel has announced a billion dollar investment across emerging markets. Microsoft has recently launched with pay-as-you-go computing initiative called FlexGo. AMD has also been working in this area for some time, having launched the Personal Internet Communicator a couple years ago. Besides the computer, the mobile phone has also emerged as an additional option for connecting users to the Internet.

As Kevin Maney puts it: The big computer companies believe their growth opportunities are in the next billion computer users — people who so far have not been able to afford computers or Internet connections. The current computer market is basically saturated, and it’s getting harder to excite customers to buy new, more powerful machines because — for most people — their old machines are by far powerful enough.

Part of the motivation of the computer companies in targeting the next billion users is that the first billion or so users already have computers and therefore little reason to upgrade or buy new computers considering that the Internet, rather than the local hard disk, is increasingly the source of content and services. Faced with a slowing growth in their current markets, the computer companies are looking at blue oceans and these can be found amongst the users in the developing countries. Take India, for example. The installed base of computers is less than 20 million, growing at about 5 million a year. Compare that with the usage of mobiles 100 million, growing at just under 5 million a month. Nearly three-quarters of the Internet users use cybercafes rather than a computer at home for their access. Across small- and medium-sized enterprises, homes and educational institutions, India offers an opportunity for 100 million computers over the next 4-5 years.

Selling computers in emerging markets offers an excellent opportunity to do good and do well. In this series, we will look at the various solutions on offer and discuss which ones are likely to emerge as winners.

Tomorrow: Motivation

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.