Monday, September 06, 2004

Low-cost web access device for developing nations?

Getting e-learning and e-commerce to people in developing nations is problematic if their annual income is only a few hundred dollars --- or less. Even if the internet is available, how do people afford a computer to access it? This sub $250 PCtvt device being developed by Carnegie Mellon may help. Smart WiFi phones are more portable, and may soon cost a lot less, but the PCtvt shows what is already being done with the traditional desktop concept.

It's intention is really to entertain and aid communication in a community, rather than be used as a personal computing device. But it combines a limited computer and a browser with a radically simple icon-driven design, can handle e-mail and voicemail, and can be used as a television and a videophone. All for less than $250.

The success of this PCtvt depends on their being some kind of telecommunications infrastructure available so it can be hooked up to the net. That may work in a place like India, the PCtvt's initial destination, but it won't work in Africa or anywhere else that landline phone systems are simply unavailable to the poor. Access to the internet can be resolved, at least in urban areas, by wide-area WiFi hotspots of the sort that will be commonplace in America and Europe within a year or two. But the access devices have to be WiFi enabled.

The PCtvt could herald a wave of new concepts in low-end computing at price points that, in volume, will beat the $200 mark. How about a similar device without the television but with WiFi access, more powerful browser functionality, and secure encryption? It could be used for transactions (e-commerce) and learning (basic literacy, school, teacher training, university, employable skills training). Back such a device with free-to-cheap ASP services to help people set up simple websites and start small online businesses, and a government or aid agency could have a rapid and significant impact on the population of an underdeveloped urban area.

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