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Low-cost computing: Gaining ground in India

January 09, 2008 02:37 IST

The partnership between technology giant Intel and former MIT Media Lab Director Nicholas Negroponte's 'One Laptop per Child' project may have ended. It does not, however, sound the death knell for low-cost computing initiatives in India.

In fact, both the Classmate PC projects (from Intel) and OLPC pilots (with Reliance Communications) besides low-cost initiatives from players like Novatium, Encore, Xenitis and Allied Computers are gathering momentum independent of each other in the country.

"From a technical point of view, I admire the OLPC project. However, its utility has not been proven in India. To make a project succeed, one requires business capability too. The severance of the tie-up will not make any material difference to ground realities," opines Director of the International Institute of Information Technology-Bangalore (IIIT-B), S Sadagopan.

In August 2007, Intel had teamed up with HCL Infosystems to introduce the Intel-powered Classmate PC in India from August. Wipro and Zenith Computers are soon expected to follow suit with similar announcements.

Around that time, Intel had also announced that it was partnering with Negroponte's OLPC project.

However, Negroponte had allegedly asked the chipmaker to stop selling its Classmate PC while it was part of the OLPC (which currently ships its XO laptop, based on a chip from AMD -- Intel's arch rival). Five months later, the tie-up has ended but not without trading of charges.

"There were differences over how the education market should be approached. We, however, remain committed to the education, healthcare and rural sectors. And we very much believe in the one laptop per child vision. However, we also believe that we ought to support multiple platforms (not just XO) which explains why the Classmate PC project will continue as slated with major Indian hardware vendors," says John McClure, director, marketing, Intel South Asia.

Intel does not discuss numbers, but HCL's target was to have at least 10,000 Classmate PCs over the next one year.

However, the cost of each Classmate PC in August was estimated to be a little under Rs 18,000 (compare that with the OLPC product which is around Rs 7,500, including taxes and import duties).

It included hardware, software (HCL offers both the Microsoft operating system and Linux) and learning programmes that will be offered to schools.

Can Intel match the price? "All I can say that the current price has fallen considerably due to the rupee appreciation. And it will fall further. We are using our 45 nanometre chip technology to lower the cost, power consumption, size and weight and increase the number of applications," McClure asserts.

Meanwhile, RCom joined hands with the OLPC project in late 2007 (sole representative in India for OLPC) and distributes laptops on behalf of the Foundation and provides network (Internet) support including training school teachers/ instructors.

Currently, a pilot project is underway in a village called Khairat near Karjat (Maharashtra). RCom is also exploring the states of Karnataka and Gujarat. It plans to have 15-20 rural schools under the fold by end of 2008, according to an RCom spokesperson.

"There are other alternatives in the low-cost computing arena too," notes Sadagopan. Allied Computers International (Asia), for instance, has just launched India's first laptop for Rs 14,999.

It is Wi-Fi-enabled, weighs a mere 950 grams and has a 7" TFT screen (similar to the Classmate PC and XO laptop from OLPC). And Chennai-based Novatium Solutions offers Nova netPC wherein subscribers pay a monthly fee (Rs 399) to access the Internet (has tied up with MTNL) and use applications running on Novatium's servers.

The basic set costs Rs 4,500. A new monitor, mouse and keyboard will cost about Rs 4,500. Total price: less than Rs 10,000. Novatium has a tie-up with MTNL.

The Mobilis, developed for the CSIR by Encore Software (one of the two companies which created variants of the Indian handheld device -- the Simputer), however, has not quite got off the ground.

Leslie D'Monte in Mumbai
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