The futile quest for a 35 dollar computer

The futile quest for a 35 dollar computer

I am a skeptic when it comes to the $35 laptop computer.

Rs1500 is the kind of price point that simply isn’t possible, unless you do one of two things. One, the government subsidizes the computer, once again addressing a problem from the wrong end. Two, it isn’t really a computer.

My problem isn’t as much with the notion of a low-cost laptop computer as it is with the number. A $100 laptop computer, to my mind, is a possibility (and there is a very high probability that someone will develop one in the next few years). This will be real laptop computer, with a working keyboard, screen, battery, maybe even a drive, and come with pre-loaded software that will enable the user access the Internet, send and receive e-mail, write, and watch movies (or educational videos, if you’d rather have me say that).

I don’t see a $35 laptop computer doing most of this.

And oh, yes, I almost forgot, the $100 laptop will have a full-colour display.

Low-cost products are most often seen in markets that are highly developed and segmented (such as the one for mobile phones). A low cost product also bespeaks high-volume manufacturing and an established base of suppliers that can supply components cheap, and in bulk. Again, these characteristics are true of the mobile phone business. The cheapest mobile phone available in India today costs 500, or around $11; there is one model available at this price; there are several models available at the 800-1000 ($18-22) price range. It is unlikely that number will go down by much. Keeping in mind the relative utilities of a mobile phone and a computer, it is inconceivable that a laptop computer that costs anything less than $100 will be able to do much.

I believe that by focusing on the number, the government, which sees the low-cost laptop computer as the culmination of its efforts to bridge the digital divide, is doing a disservice to underprivileged people, especially children in government schools. The experience of mobile phone makers and telcos in the country has proved beyond doubt that even people at the bottom of the pyramid are capable of exhibiting very sophisticated usage behaviour.

This isn’t a problem that needs to be solved by subsidy. Nor is it one that should be addressed by a bare-bones computer that does practically nothing. The government would do well to look at its experience with the USO fund. Created to subsidize the growth of mobile phone networks in so-called unviable regions, the fund became almost redundant in the heydays of Indian telecom, with companies expressing their willingness to offer services in these areas, without any subsidization by the government.