This post would try to share few ideas and concerns about the $35 laptop announced by the Indian HRD Minister Kapil Sibal and how successful or not it can be.
There have been quite a few stories circulating about the $35 laptop (actually should be called ‘tablet’ PC due to the looks and the design) . While I don’t for a moment doubt an expertise on Institutes of Higher Learning (The IIT Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.) What I’m skeptic about is the total lack of specs. or details about the hardware. What is also not clear as how they hope to take care of the maintainence of such a hardware. Would there be warranty for such a machine and how it would work.
The closest I have come to see something similar is the Notion Ink Adam tablet. Now Adam has been in development for around 6-7 months and they hope to launch the same in November, specifically for the Indian market and if they are able to crack it then the American markets. While they haven’t announced any prices but most of the people think it would be priced somewhere around the INR Rs. 10,000 mark. While it would be really great if a $35 or INR Rs. 1600/- product comes in the market (subsidy 50% which means the real cost is something like INR Rs. 3200/-) I see somethings which could really accelerate a sort of high-end engineering open-hardware model for the country.
Some tips perhaps :-
1. Open the hardware, put the blueprints up and network not just with the IIT’s and IISC but also the Open Hardware, homebrew and the modding community. There is a severe lack of doing innovative work in most of the Engineering colleges. The only magazine I know which is into making a habit of inculcating scientific DIY nature is a magazine called Electronics For You and it still has to break the elitist way its written but that’s for another time altogether.
2. While specs. are not available it would be really could if it had Pixel Qi screen or something similar. There are all kinds of next generation displays at work which would show displays at 1 watt or less. For e.g. I saw on a news item of a portable hard disk which had an electronic label which didn’t use any power. It just used the juice when it got connected to a USB cable and whenever it disconnects it shows the remaining capacity of an HDD from the last time it was connected to USB. That is cool.
3. While importing components in the first leg is fine, if it has to reach the scale then domestic production is imperative. The govt. should either give direct subsidy to the manufacturer in the form of taxes and what not and encourage to produce such equipment here itself.
4. If the design/blueprints are opened up it would also make repairing as well as modifying things so easy. If one looks at it, people can go to any mobile repair class and learn the reference designs of Nokia base models (even though they are supposed to be under NDA’s and what not.) A good idea of what could happen is Openmoko. Its a good place to visit as you can see the wins as well as failures of a project like Openmoko which is based on the principles of Open Hardware and FOSS software.
The wins I see is lot of transparency specifically on the IP and designs generated and a loyal developer community as well as a larger external community which follows the project passionately.
The downside is basically the scale and the ability to have a distributor/repair network. At least in part, it is shared by also the OLPC project.
On the other hand, one can see Google, HTC, Samsung and other vendors using the Android platform so successively.
5. While people may point that I am comparing oranges to apples as in a ‘tablet PC’ to a ‘mobile phone’ in the vendor-centric world they are not that different. The only difference perhaps might be the rate at which they are sold and produced but otherwise they have same/similar characteristics.
6. I am sure if these guys do get a decent machine out, it would be used and abused by one and all. I for one, would beg,borrow and steal for a $35 Internet access and e-reading device which I can take with me without fear while traveling. If done right, it could potentially make the case for cloud computing even more.
7. Just the FOSS world itself is a fast-moving place. Whether its the browser or any of the other applications, the rate of change is bewildering. I don’t know how they would keep up. For e.g. take the Android OS which has a new version every 3-6 months or so. It would be interesting to see what motherboard or daughterboard they use and what BIOS is used. Would the BIOS be locked or something like Coreboot. That would be really interesting.
8. The only electronic devices made by Govt. companies I can recollect in the past were the ECTV and UPTRON, 2 TV’s which I had seen/abused in the early 80’s. Both of them had this weird problem of needing a mechanic when it used to be the monsoon season or when we went to a holiday somewhere. Since we moved to Videocon a local TV manufacturer, now having global ambitions we had no qualms.
So in essence, while I’m all for the $35 laptop, till I see something practical on the ground alongwith specs. and a plan for a national rollout along with service and maintainence taken care off I remain on the skeptical side. Of course other things such as the type of components used and the assembly and how it works out in real-life would only be known in the next 6 months-year but I’m not holding my breath yet.
That’s all for now. Peace out.