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Cheap computing for millions!

Harichandan A A | July 28, 2005

Novatium Solutions, a Chennai-based startup is building a $100 (Rs 4,300) computer using the "thin client" architecture. This, the company hopes, will take "computing to the next billion."

In Bangalore, Encore Software is engaged in a similar experiment. Its SofComp is being promoted as a sub-Rs 10,000 mobile computer. Earlier, the company had developed the handheld Simputer with the help of professors from the Indian Institute of Science in the city.

SofComp combines affordability, computing ability and mobility, say Encore's chairman Vinay Deshpande and vice president Shashank Garg. It works without a hard disk and uses the system-on-chip architecture.

Set up by Shishir B Purohit, Novatium, meanwhile, dreams of making low cost PCs widely available, an effort backed by Ashok Jhunjhunwala, the Indian Institute of Technology (Chennai) professor who took wireless telephony to villages. Its computer, based on "thin client" architecture can handle most routine office work such as e-mail, word processing, spread sheets, presentations, and Internet browsing.

Clearly, the fact that even "assembled" desktops are not affordable to most Indians is being seen as a huge business opportunity by an increasing number of people in the IT industry. Experts in the IT business believe that with some innovations, most popular features on the desktop can be delivered at much lower costs.

Entrepreneurs promoting low cost computing hope to open up new markets for their products in the villages. Yet others feel the opportunity lies in the millions of urban telephone subscribers. The technology employed in these PCs varies: some use chips normally meant for the mobile environment yet others build solutions around the more conventional x86 platform. The operating systems, too, vary -- from Linux, a popular open source software, to the proprietary Microsoft Windows as in the case of Advance Micro Devices' "Personal Internet Communicator".

In essence, most of these solutions are stripped-down versions of the personal computer as we know it. In return, they will come (they're not yet launched) at prices between Rs 4,500 and Rs 10,000, and work more like compact "computing appliances," rather than the feature-rich but expensive desktops.

The Encore Software computer, for instance, uses an Intel XScale processor, a chip for a handheld device. It uses a flash memory chip which is a common but a less efficient replacement for the hard disk. "Its capacity can vary, but it is enough for the basic software that SofComp comes with, as well as for limited storage of files," says Garg.

Mobilis, a variant of SofComp comes with a 7.4 inch liquid crystal display screen of Japanese origin. The basic version will cost Rs 10,000 and its manufacturers aim to reduce the price further. It runs on Linux and is able to handle popular functions such as text editing, email and web-surfing.

Weighing less than a kilogram, it can be carried around in a small bag. A leather casing folds back to prop the computer at a convenient angle, informs Garg, who heads Encore's advanced projects.

SofComp, essentially an embedded device, is designed to be an "office appliance" or a product meant for small businesses. It can be used for checking email and editing text. Deshpande and his team are also betting heavily on e-governance applications and education to help boost sales.

Encore also wanted to build a platform that wouldn't become obsolete in a hurry. Typically, a desktop model becomes obsolete in about two years as semiconductor chip manufacturers pull out older models of processors, memory and other integrated chips. The same goes for operating software. Licensing proprietary software is expensive.

An important feature of the computer is high-quality local-language text-to-speech (TTS) support in Indian languages including Hindi, Kannada and Marathi. Work is underway to support Tamil and Telugu as well. This feature is also important for Encore's "go-to-market strategy".

Thin clients, meanwhile, are computers that do not have their own hard disks. They connect as "terminals" to a server, whose memory and software they borrow. The advantage is that they have little that a virus can attack, and most changes need to be made at the server end.

"Thin client solutions are particularly relevant where uniform systems are required for large groups of people and minimal support is available to run the systems," says Ashok Jhunjhunwala. Typical examples are schools, colleges, hospitals, community centres and businesses. Since the platform uses "any computing environment with a local area network and a terminal server," government and e-governance projects and large enterprises are potential customers.

Globally, thin client original equipment makers use Intel's X86 platforms. The computer can use both "open source" and Windows based software applications. It can also handle "browser based server-centric applications," such as an enterprise resource planning or a customer relationship management package.

For the time being, manufacturers like Encore and SofCom are busy fine-tuning their products. But whether the consumers will log in or not remains to be seen.

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