TECH TALK: Computing for the Next Billion: Motivation

Kevin Maney put the trend of developing solutions for the next users in context in his recent USA Today column:

All of a sudden, all kinds of folks in technology want to help create the next billion Internet users. From various corners of the developed world, entities are popping up to make technology that could help people with little money, spotty electricity and no telecommunication networks become part of the MySpace generation.

It’s a mini-movement. There’s former Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab chief Nicholas Negroponte with his $100 laptops, funded in part by Google. There’s chipmaker AMD with its 50×15 program funding projects that can get 50% of the world’s population on the Internet by 2015. There’s Intel, trying to keep up with feisty rival AMD, announcing in early May that it will invest $1 billion to make technology for people in developing nations.

You might wonder why there is a blossoming of interest in Third World computing.

I’ve talked to Negroponte, Intel and lots of others who are jumping into this. To some degree, it really is about a give-something-back impulse.

Maybe Bill Gates’ charity and Bono’s exhortations to help Africa have had an impact. Maybe old idealists such as Marsh are back in vogue. Maybe the dot-com megamillionaire generation wants to do something more meaningful than trade up to a new Porsche Cayman.

But there is something else: The existing PC market is slowing. Just about everyone in the developed world who wants one has one. And unlike in the past, if you have one, it’s probably got more power than you can possibly use, so there’s little reason to trade up anymore.

If companies such as Intel and AMD want to reignite growth, they’ll have to create markets. One of them is the next billion computer users a whole strata the tech industry has until now ignored.

It’s not exactly JFK idealism, but that’s OK. A little market pressure will do more to drive this trend than anything.

I have lived in a developing nation India for most of my life (35 out of 39 years). I had the good fortune of seeing and working on a computer as early as 1982. The Internet came into my life in 1994. I can see the power of the two together to transform peoples lives be it by providing market access or for education. If India has to move ahead, we have to use computers and the Internet as a key building block of the basic infrastructure. This is a business opportunity if we can do it right in India, then we can take the solution out to other markets like India. It is also an opportunity, as Kevin Maney puts it, to give something back. It is we who have to help build the digital infrastructure for the New India. That was the founding vision for us in Novatium.

But before I get to what my thinking is, let us see what others are thinking and doing. Micheal Kanellos of ZDNet summarized the various initiatives thus: The ideas can roughly be broken down into four categories: more-rugged PCs promoted by Intel and Via Technologies; a cell phone that can be hooked into a phone or monitor, promoted by Microsoft; thin clients, touted by companies in India; and inexpensive devices that are similar to PCs. This is the so-called $100 laptop from MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte.

Let us start with $100 laptop project.

Tomorrow: OLPC

TECH TALK Computing for the Next Billion+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.