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ULTRABUDGET COMPUTING

Biswajit.HD

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IS IT POSSIBLE TO BUY A COMPUTER FOR ONLY RS 10,000? WE EXPLORE ALL THE OPTIONS.

The whole appeal of computing is essentially that people all over the world can make their lives simpler, richer, and more productive by using machines to do things that aren’t humanly possible, or that would otherwise take a lot more time and effort. Most of the machines, gadgets and programs we use today were created out of people’s needs or desires for bigger and better things in life, whether these fall in the fields of business, education or entertainment. These are needs and desires that anyone can experience—and the inventions that fulfill them often come about only because of an extremely rare stroke of genius or even because of an accident!

Along with necessity, there’s another powerful motive for developing anything new: profit. Rather than creating something because a need exists, we create a need (or the perception of a need) in order to sell something that satisfies it. Corporations thrive when changing fashions and trends cause people to buy new things. Incredible amounts of money are spent on advertising and marketing to convince people that buying something will make them happier, better looking or more successful.

Technology as an industry has to strike a careful balance between progress and indulgence. We constantly feel that our computers are becoming slow and our cellphones are outdated—mostly because the pace at which the industry churns out new models forces older ones into obsolescence long before they’re actually past their prime. Sure each new generation brings some amount of progress (even if it is only aesthetic) and if consumers are eager to buy, then by all means they should be able to.

Yet in all the enthusiasm for newer, faster, shinier technology, the lower end gets left out. This is the long tail, the millions and millions of people for whom being fashionable and “current” is not a concern. They don’t have deep pockets and they won’t upgrade every six months. It would be a huge mistake to assume that they don’t know anything about technology, or that they don’t know the difference between low-end and high-end gadgets because they haven’t been exposed to them. These are simply people who want to get things done—automated office work, instant communication, remote banking and investment, information searching, and yes, a lot of entertainment too.
There’s a hunger for self-improvement through technology that cuts across all strata of class, income and situation. People know that their futures and their children’s futures depend on access to computing and especially the Internet. Attention is turning to them, but they just aren’t profitable enough for most of the world’s companies to seriously upset the balance of the market. In the following pages, we take a look at all the options available to those who want to buy a computer and ware more concerned with price and utility than staying on the cutting edge. It’s time now to shift attention to the long tail.


THE NETTOP AND NETBOOK

Our golden target is Rs 10,000 for a fully functioning PC. Netbooks and nettops originally held the promise of affordable computing in developing countries, and the original EeePC hit India with a price tag of Rs 18,000 which was promised to fall as volumes ramped up over time. Other efforts like the One Laptop Per Child initiative promised to deliver cheap netbook-style computers for US$ 99 (Approx Rs 4,700) but this was never widely accepted either. However instead of emerging markets, they were quickly adopted by affluent users around the world as cheap, portable, secondary machines for occasional use. As a result, the market is flooded with convenient but underpowered and oddly expensive computers!

Still, efforts are on to push prices lower and lower. Where the netbook leaves off, its non-portable equivalent, the nettop, takes over. Many see these as the future of affordable computing in markets like India. With Intel Atom processors unquestionably dominating the arena, it’s no surprise that the company has a lot of interest in seeing them succeed. An effort was on last year to marshall the industry into creating not only a nettop at Rs 10,000, but one with a WiMAX antenna built in. While the integrated antenna would help bring Internet access to huge areas of the country which have not been connected yet, there is another advantage: The Government of India collects a surcharge from urban telecom operators called the Universal Service Obligation fund. This money is used to subsidize telecom and now also data connectivity in rural and remote areas of the country, which means that this particular device could be sold for under Rs 10,000 with a government subsidy, which according to Intel, would be approximately Rs 3,500 to Rs 5,000.

CHIP spoke to Rajesh Gupta, Director, Sales and Marketing, Intel South Asia about achieving that price point. Intel, HCL and BSNL have a tie-up in place to provide the platform, manufacturing and distribution, and wireless Internet connection respectively. We should see a launch in at least three states this year, but the project has run into a few hurdles including the repeatedly delayed 3G/WiMAX spectrum auction. More interestingly, other companies had been roped in to make specific components available to system integrators, including iBall for the cabinet/power supply and AOC for the monitor. In the beginning, CRT monitors were factored in to keep the price down, but these are not being manufactured anywhere in the world now. Another Intel concept design which iBall might be bringing to market is a nettop cabinet with a battery pack for both the system and the monitor, to help work against power cuts and erratic power supply in most parts of India.

S.C Ahluwalia, BSNL General Manager, Marketing, adds that the USO subsidy is under discussion, but BSNL does not offer WiMAX schemes for buyers of the nettop as of now. Since BSNL doesn’t have to wait for the auction, it has launched its WiMAX service in limited areas, and the maximum response is coming from government and educational institutions as well as some microenterprises. However all WiMAX base stations have been deployed to provide backhaul connectivity to rural Common Service Centers of the National E-Governance Plan. While initial response has been slow, it is expected to pick up as more base stations are installed and awareness is increased.

WiMAX aside, both nettops and netbooks have sold exceptionally well through the last year, and significant growth is projected in 2010 as well. Some vendors might be able to still import CRTs or 15-inch LCDs to bring costs back within the Rs 10,000 goal, while larger manufacturers will be able to hit Rs 14,000 or so including an LCD monitor.

THE CHALLENGE IN RURAL MARKETS IS ERRATIC POWER SUPPLY. IF THE POWER SUPPLY IS ERRATIC, IT’S VERY DIFFICULT FOR PEOPLE TO USE COMPUTERS. SO WE HAVE A CONCEPT DESIGNFOR A BATTERY BACKUP FOR A NETTOP, A CHASSIS IN WHICH YOU CAN HAVE A BATTERY FOR BOTH THE SYSTEM AND DISPLAY FOR A REASONABLE PERIOD OF TIME

- RAJESH GUPTA,
DIRECTOR, SALES AND MARKETING,
INTEL SOUTH ASIA

THE DESKTOP

The rate of growth of CPU power alone is dizzying. Intel itself shows that its current CPUs perform over 500 percent better in certain tasks than those in the same consumer segment three years ago did. New applications are constantly devised to take advantage of such speed increases: 3D graphics, video editing, realistic gaming, immersive virtual worlds, multimedia encoding, and rich web applications to name a few. You can see this trend in advertising campaigns too; from basic audio and video to the Internet to HD content creation, newer possibilities are being opened up with each successive generation. And while we’re all thrilled to see what the latest and greatest can do, there’s one pressing question which has no satisfactory answer: when so much more performance can be had for the same price, why can’t the older products with lower performance continue to be available at lower prices?

Market dynamics aside, you can usually source older components in India, both new and second-hand. As far as new PCs with current low-end components go, you’ll find it extremely tough to find anything below the Rs 17,000 mark. While prices of most components fell drastically last year, they are beginning to recover. Pricewise, LCD displays, hard drives and RAM are the most volatile. RAM has already doubled in price after falling to incredible lows in the middle of 2009 and LCDs aren’t easily available in smaller sizes.

If you’ve decided against a nettop, you obviously want something with a little more power. For that very reason, it makes no sense to compromise performance below a certain point! So for non-Nettop PCs, we have only a few choices to make. However plenty of opportunities present themselves if we look at the second-hand market. Every city and town has at least one market area where such dealers can be found, and there are of course plenty of forums on the Internet (including ebay.in, craigslist.com, ***********.com and of course chip.in) where people post about selling or donating their old hardware. Jitubhai and Sons (www.jitubhai.com) is one of India’s best known suppliers of older hardware. Hyderabad-based Big Apple (www.bigapple.in) is also a big player.

Second-hand stuff is always a risk and you have to inspect parts on a case-by-case basis to evaluate what condition they’re in. Avoid second-hand components with moving parts, especially hard drives, optical drives and power supplies. Motherboards can also be damaged badly in their lifetimes, but you won’t see any visible signs. If you can see traces of repairs or modification such as solder or torn stickers, it’s probably better to avoid that unit. Assuming you test the parts you buy or get some kind of guarantee or exchange period, the safer components are monitors, RAM, CPUs and graphics or other add-on cards. Even then, get a new CPU cooler of your own if the old one is noisy or caked with dirt.
After scouring the Mumbai market, we put together the following theoretical configurations which mix new and second-hand parts to achieve the magical Rs 10,000 price point. Of course specs and prices will vary with availability.

DEMAND IS COMING FROM GOVERNMENT AND EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS AND SOME MICRO ENTERPRISES. THE INITIAL RESPONSE HAS BEEN SLOW BUT IT IS EXPECTED TO PICK UP.

- S C AHLUWALIA,
GENERAL MANAGER – MARKETING,
BSNL

THE CLOUD

The computer of the next decade might be nothing more than an Internet-enabled device whose resources, storage space and computation power can be adapted to your personal requirements. If you want more, you get more. Strong encryption takes care of the required safety. And since a browser is the only thing you need to use, there is no need for a full operating system like Windows. Your computer will turn on in roughly 10 seconds and its speed will be twice as high as today’s smartphones. The best thing will be that you won’t have to spend much at all. You only have to pay a basic amount for the hardware, and then subscribe to the services you need. When you need an extraordinarily high amount of resources, for instance, you can take a temporary upgrade.

To get a feel of the current state of cloud computing technology, visit www.mygoya.com. Mygoya is a free operating system which runs in the browser. In order for it to work on a computer, Adobe Flash Player and Java must be installed. Mygoya offers a handful of applications like Notepad, Messenger and a word processor. Besides, you can use other services like Magix Website Maker with your account. However, the 512 MB of online storage space is rather poor and cannot be expanded. If you require more storage space, visit iCloud (www.icloud.com). The interface there looks like a bridge between Windows XP and Vista, but behind it is Ubuntu Linux with a new skin. iCloud provides you with 3 GB of space and can also be expanded.

THE FREE SOFTWARE
What good is cheap hardware if the software costs twice as much? The cost of Windows and other software can easily double the Rs 10,000 target, but it’s up to each end user to decide whether to pay for the privilege of using the programs we’re used to, or discovering free alternatives. There’s almost nothing you can’t do with Linux and the vast library of free applications that run on it, especially in the entry-level space where people’s needs encompass only communication, Web surfing, document creation, music and movies. If you aren’t too sure about getting started with free software, you can find some great tips at www.osalt.com and www.alternativeto.net.


‘Cloud Drive|Shared |Search’ helps sync your computer’s hard drive with the cloud. And just open the iCloud Start menu and select ‘Internet|Browser’. This way you can increase your storage space with online services like www.adrive.com (50 GB).

However, while storing data online, you have to deal with bottlenecks: anything less than a 512 kpbs connection will feel painfully slow. iCloud can even transmit videos in the browser in highly compressed form.

Most users do not face problems with iCloud. However, if you insist on Windows because you don’t want to give up certain applications or because you just need something familiar, you will have to deal with Windows’ license costs.
The Swiss provider Nivio (www.nivio.com) lets you rent a Windows XP “desktop” with applications. XP alone, which is called nDesktop, costs about Rs 219 per month. You can use free applications such as Skype, Firefox, the GIMP and Winamp for no additional cost, but Microsoft Office 2007 will cost an additional Rs 118 per month (only Word, Excel and Powerpoint are including, other apps including Visio, Access and Publishers can be added a la carte). You can click on ‘Demo|Try Live Demo’ on the website to try the solution free for a limited time. Nivio gives you 10 GB of space, and expanding it through third-party providers is possible too.

THE CELLPHONE
While they are clearly not computers, there’s no stopping cellphones from providing a huge amount of our computing needs. Most of today’s budget phones under Rs 5,000 include at least GPRS for Internet connectivity, and a huge number of service providers are jumping on to the SMS and voice-recognition platforms. For Rs 10,000 you can buy a cellphone with solid multimedia and Internet connectivity features, including a large touchscreen, social networking and instant messaging, and support for Java as well as online applications. According to the most recent reports, over 95 percent of urban Indians and 57 percent of rural Indians have access to a mobile phone—figures that eclipse the penetration levels of newspapers, TV, and the Internet.

In India, Nivio has partnered with Airtel to offer the same cloud OS service under the Airtel Online Desktop name. In addition, Airtel sells its Net PC, a thin-client solution with a monitor, keyboard, mouse and the Online Desktop. It’s currently available for Rs 7,999 in New Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida, with plans to extend availability to other places in India soon. The Net PC is promoted as power efficient and rugged, with no moving parts. Nivio points out that power cuts won’t result in a loss of data since it’s all stored remotely, and that you get robust protection from viruses and malware.

CHIP tested Airtel Online Desktop in 2009 and found that while the experience is certainly not for the ultimate performance enthusiast, it should suffice for most casual or occasional users who need nothing more than to surf the web, check mail, and type a document now and then. The broadband quality also has to be factored in, though.
Most of programs that ordinary home and office users need have equivalent versions available today that run entirely off the Web. While you still need some amount of hardware to run them, the cost of licensing an operating system and other software dips drastically. And with the lower requirements come interesting PC developments, such as touchscreen tablets and compact netbooks. To help things along, Google’s ChromeOS operating system which is designed specifically to enable Web applications will shake things up even more when it debuts later this year. ChromeOS is basically an expanded version of the Chrome browser which can run directly on computer hardware without any underlying operating system.

Source : Chip magazine.
 
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