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Cheap PCs for developing markets hit India first

Low-cost, low-maintenance machine hoped to bring computing to rural India

Aiming for a share of the low-cost computer market in developing countries, a number of multinational and local vendors are introducing specially designed products that will offer users lower startup costs, and easier manageability and maintenance. The products, most of them based on Linux, will go on sale first in India.

Encore Software in Bangalore, India, for example, has recently introduced three models of Linux-based computers that will be priced at between £120 and £180, depending on the configuration.

To decrease maintenance costs, all three computers lack moving mechanical parts, said an Encore spokesperson. He added that lowering the computers' total ownership cost was the designs' focus. The products will be sold in India and elsewhere.

The Encore computers offer battery backup for up to six hours, and an optional solar panel for recharging the battery. Poor power supply quality is a key problem in India, particularly in rural areas.

Although nonbranded PCs with an entry-level configurations are available for about £220 in India, their total cost of ownership is far higher when factoring in uninterrupted power supply, maintenance and software costs, Encore’s spokesperson said.

Encore's new products support local languages and text-to-speech features, and are targeted at unsophisticated computer users who want to run routine tasks such as office applications and Web browsing.

Encore has also co-developed the Simputer, a low-cost Linux handheld computer. Although the product has not done well in the market, with sales of only about 5,000 units since its commercial launch last February, product demand is now increasing. The product was introduced in 2001 but the company conducted Simputer pilot projects until last year.

"It has taken time for people to understand the full potential of the Simputer," said Deshpande. "They looked at it initially as yet another PDA." A Simputer with an entry-level configuration costs £240.

Other vendors are testing different low-cost computing models. Novatium Solutions, a startup in Chennai in south India, is working on a Linux thin client that will sell for about £54 and lack moving parts. The company believes that as broadband proliferates, the most viable option for low-cost computing for mass markets like education, home, small and medium enterprises and e-governance will be to hook a simple appliance on to a Linux server on a network, according to a company spokesman.

In addition to low prices, in emerging markets, manageability is also critical, said the spokesman.

Besides supporting traditional data processing, the thin clients will support multimedia applications such as streaming video. Novatium aims to deliver computing as a utility that is piped through networks into thin clients.

Encore and Novatium are targeting other developing countries as well as India. Products from both companies attempt to break away from traditional computing models based on Microsoft's Windows operating system and Intel's microprocessors.

Novatium's thin client, for example, has been designed from the ground up, and includes a processor designed in-house by the company.

Encore decided to use Linux for its new computers to keep costs low, although the company is open to using any other operating system that customers want.

Multinational companies are also planning to introduce computers considered appropriate for environments in developing economies. Intel, for example, is said to be designing a PC that will work on a car battery


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