Entrepreneurs, philanthropists and established computer firms have for the better part of a decade invested millions of dollars to lower the cost of a desktop PC and develop cheaper alternatives. Intel has made its Eduwise laptop; AMD, a Personal Internet Communicator; Microsoft, the FonePlus. MIT computer guru Nicholas Negroponte’s Children’s Machine, now called the XO, is the most publicized recent attempt at converting the poor into computer users. But Negroponte’s idea is to spread computers to the poor, with the help of heavy subsidies from private and public philanthropy. His price is still about $140, too high for India. Indeed India rejected Negroponte’s offer of a million for cost reasons. Jain’s motive is different: he wants to make money.
And he knows India. Despite the country’s rise as an outsourcing hub, PCs are selling slowlyfar more slowly than mobile phones or motorbikesbecause they are too expensive, too complicated to use and too difficult to maintain. What people have been waiting for, some experts think, is a new approach to computing that boils the essence of Internet access down to its lowest costand lowest risk. Jain plans to offer all this in lease deals that include easy-to-use hardware, Internet connection, application software and servicefor $10 a month.
Jain makes an unusual agent for such sweeping change. He has none of the bombast of Oracle’s Larry Ellison. He lives more like a monk than a millionairethough he sold his first successful venture, IndiaWorld, for more than $100 million in 1999. Jain first got the idea to build a low-cost computer alternative back in 2000, when he realized Western PCs weren’t getting cheap enough fast enough to serve India’s needs. He considered buying secondhand computers from abroad, or opening cybercafs. Then he read about Oracle CEO Ellison’s plans for the so-called network computer. Maintenance and management costs for the PC were untenable, Ellison proclaimed, and businesses would soon save millions of dollars by putting software and data back onto their network servers. Ellison’s idea hadn’t taken off, Jain decided, because so many users in Western markets already had PCs and resisted the change. Jain realized that India would be a better target for the idea.
Tomorrow: Looking Ahead
TECH TALK A Tale of Two Covers+T