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The truth about India's $ 35 computer

Last updated: 25 July, 2010
By Prasanto K. Roy 19:13 IST

Here we go again! India's Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal has ''launched'' a $35 computer, evidently a ''dream project'' of his. The touch-screen, Linux-based device looks iPad-inspired, but we know little about how it works.

It emerged from a student project with a bill of material adding up to $47, a price that the minister wants to bring down to $10 "to take forward inclusive education". It promises browser and PDF reader, wi-fi, 2GB memory, USB, Open Office, and multimedia content viewers and interfaces.

Will it die a quick death within this year, or a painful, government-funded one over the next two? I fear the latter. Project Sakshat even has a busy website so it looks like a project well under way.

Remember the Rs10,000 personal computer, the Simputer, the $100 laptop from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the NetPCs from a host of companies and India's so-called $10 laptop? How many flops and failures will it take to convince governments -- and brave, but misled companies -- to get these facts of life tech, products, and life?

You don't launch products until you have a product to launch. Else it's vapourware. The Indian government is building up a good track record of vapourware, from $10 laptops upward. Apple, for in sharp contrast, for instance, launches with a million units ready to sell, and midnight queues outside.

You don't show prototypes unless they are working ones with running apps, backed by a clear game plan to build up a vendor and apps network, and a clear design and specifications - and, preferably, a bill of materials.

It isn't about the hardware -- it's about the application and the applications (apps) ecosystem. What will it be used for? Who will make those apps? Where's the developer community? Where is the road map for hundreds of applications?
Apple had it all when it launched the iPhone and the iPad.

Product design isn't one-off. It's an ongoing process, with software updates, improvements, upgrades, and most of all, growing apps support. You can make a working laptop, but it's no trivial task maintaining it through the life cycle of the product, ensuring support, firmware and hardware upgrades, and new versions.

Replicating the Nano story -- as Tata Motors did with their small car project -- is no joke. It takes years, expertise, innovation, hard work and lots of luck and many patents, as with the Nano, to launch a product at one-tenth the current market price. I don't know of any examples of such overnight miracles. The Nano arrived after years of work, at about half of the current entry-level product's price-tag.

You also don't re-invent the wheel. We already have $35 computing devices. We call them mobile phones. They're capable, connected, always on, personal, and every second Indian has one. They're an ideal front-end to information, communications and entertainment, served over voice, SMS or data.

Over the years, I've been less blunt about cheap-PC efforts. But now I am angry. The government is wasting its efforts, my tax money and making a laughing stock of the Indian technological prowess.

It isn't the government's job to create and sell cheap PCs. If it wants to use information and communications technology (ICT) for development and education, it can use some of our tax rupees to build the ecosystem.

Create compelling government to citizen (G2C) apps. Shift to education delivered over networks, make e-tax filings mandatory, create citizen services delivered over the internet.

Ramp up tech usage in the government: Ensure employees have broadband at home, with reasons to use it - intranets, as well as mobile data and apps. It can use the funds and roadmap of the Sakshat project to fund content development for $35 mobile phones, of which there must be 100 million in India.

This isn't the first "cheap laptop" effort.
MIT's $100 laptop hasn't taken off yet. Though, it's at the $200 level and has a roadmap, including options to fund a subsidy. And maybe Sakshat 2.0 is not a hoax, unlike its predecessor. Yes, you can reach any price with sufficient subsidy.

But that is no enduring solution. It may make more sense for India to negotiate a rock-bottom price for 10 million of last year's laptops, and subsidize them down to $35.

(Prasanto K. Roy chief editor of CyberMedia's ICT group, can be found at www.pkr.in or found on twitter.com/prasanto)

IANS

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