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Low-cost computing finds its feet, finally

June 29, 2009 12:29 IST

Chennai-based E P Gopinathan is a retired employee of BSNL. Six months ago, he sold his HP desktop and bought a Nova netPC. The reason for this shift, he says, was the netPC's promise of low maintenance and ease of use.

"My earlier PC was a hassle to maintain. Frequent virus attacks and then calling someone to fix the problem was a cumbersome process," says Gopinathan.

Besides the problems that Gopinathan faced with a desktop, the lower cost of netPCs also appeals to consumers who are tired of paying for features they don't need. Take the case of R B Roy, who runs a couple of PCOs in Jamshedpur.

Roy proudly flaunts his two Nova netPCs - one for home use and the other for his work. He, too, shifted from an IBM desktop to the thin-client-based Nova netPC simply because of three reasons.

One, it came for a much lower price compared to a regular desktop; two, it was easy to use and, finally, did not demand any technical know-how to maintain it. For users such as Gopinathan and Roy, who have a limited computer use, inexpensive computing solutions that come with a 'no-maintenance' tag are becoming a way of life.

Mind you, neither Gopinathan, nor Roy belongs to the low-income group, but both had been on the look out for a computing device that was less complicated and addressed their requirements.

"My older desktop would slow down and then I would be told that there were viruses or remote cookies in the machine," says Roy, stressing the fact that he was always on the look out for a computer that would be easy to use for a non-technical user like him.

PC penetration in India, which was just 2.8 per cent in 2008, is projected to grow to 3.4 per cent in 2009. And low-cost computing could contribute significantly to enhancing the PC penetration, feel experts.

Alok Singh, chief executive officer of Novatium Solutions, a technology service company that has created the Nova net PC with the vision of providing computing to the next billion users, categorically says he is not selling a poor man's machine.

"It's just a different approach to technology. Almost half of the users have chosen the Novatium solution as a replacement for desktops," he says, adding that earlier, vendors like HCL, Zenith and Sahara had, through their low-cost desktops, tried to popularise the concept of affordable computing.

Gartner's Principal Research Analyst Diptarup Chakraborti explains, "People do not realise that price is not the sole criterion for the uptake of computing. Look at any of the earlier attempts to entice consumers, none could make a dent in the market."

Confident that Novatium's subscriber base will cross 200,000 this year, Singh claims his hands are full. "The demand is huge and we are going out of stock. This year, obviously, we are focusing on India, but we do have plans to take this to international markets as well," he says.

While Novatium is focussing on marketing its hardware, players like Nivio are hard-selling their services such as global access to a personal virtual desktop from any internet connected device.

Nivio belongs to SMX iNet Global Services SA, a privately held Swiss technology company focused on creating innovation around the consumer and small business technology space.

In India, the company has tied up with Bharti-Airtel to distribute Nivio Companion, which includes a 15-inch LCD monitor, a keyboard, a mouse and a companion - a small box which connects to the internet. And this entire set retails at Rs 7,999. At present, the product is restricted to Delhi and the NCR, but Nivio plans to offer it across the country in the next three months.

Meanwhile, K Srinivas, joint president (Telemedia Services) of Bharti Airtel, is eyeing home users, students, SMBs and SMEs to build a customer channel for the Airtel Net PC. "Since there is no hard disk drive and operating system on the Airtel Net PC, there is nothing to maintain. On an average of Rs 2,000 per PC towards annual maintenance contract, for a medium-size organisation with an installation of 50 units, the resultant savings could be up to Rs 100,000 per year," he says.

Nivio chairman and managing director Sachin Duggal agrees, citing the example of Delhi-based Inderjeet, who runs a travel business. Inderjeet was one of Nivio's early customers, who shifted from a Pentium III-based assembled PC to Nivio Companion.

"The biggest factor that instigated me to shift to Nivio Companion was the availability of data anywhere. Now I don't have to take my laptop when I am visiting clients," Inderjeet says.

Nivio's online store is also offering users the choice to add more applications from Microsoft or other third-party software solution providers. "Some of these are free to use and for others, you have to pay a fixed monthly amount," says Duggal.

Both the Nova netPC and the Nivio Companion are based on cloud computing, doing away with the need for the central processing unit. In both the cases, the software and applications reside on a central server and the user can access these through a broadband connection.

Analysts, however, do not see the uptake of cloud computing solutions as the end of propriety computing from vendors such as IBM, HP and Dell, among others.

"Cloud computing-based systems will never be able to give a personal touch to your computing experience. So, maybe these models will survive, but they will never be able to garner a huge market share," concludes Gartner's Chakraborti.

Shivani Shinde in Mumbai