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PCs for the Masses?

Intel is making computers specifically designed for users in poor countries. Will anyone want them?

The promise isn’t quite a PC in every home, but Intel’s Discover the PC initiative gives a boost to efforts to make personal computing more practical for far more of the world’s population.

Intel CEO Paul Otellini announced the initiative last week in Mexico City, the targeted first market for the new PC. Intel and Telmex, the Mexican phone company, have partnered to distribute the PC. The PC will include a hard drive, four USB ports, and built-in networking but will not be as large as conventional PCs. Intel and Telmex did not announce a price; the PC will be available in the second half of the year.

With the announcement, Intel joined a growing movement to create personal computers that fit the needs of developing countries better than conventional PC technology. In January 2005, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte gave the movement some momentum when he presented plans for a $100 laptop that would run the Linux operating system and could be powered by a hand crank. That machine is targeted for release by year’s end and would use processors from Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices. AMD has also introduced a device it calls the Personal Internet Communicator, which costs about $250 with a monitor.

Intel says that while Mexico will be the first market for its low-cost PC, it will work with governments and telecom providers in Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, and Nigeria to bring similar devices to market by year’s end.

Intel’s project is little different from previous industry efforts to bring PCs to lower-income people and regions. By and large, these efforts have not been successful, notes Roger Kay, CEO of Endpoint Technologies, a personal-computing market research firm in Wayland, MA. He cites, for instance, Gateway’s effort to finance the PC purchases of low-income Americans, which wound up being a write-down for the company.

“Even before Negroponte came out with the $100 PC, other companies were promoting some version of the same concept,” Kay says. He thinks, however, that companies are now taking a longer-term perspective – and have to. “There are still five billion people who don’t have any access to PCs,” Kay says.

Intel’s announcement reflects several years of research on the needs of users in poor countries. That research was initially conducted under the project name The Next 10 Percent and began when 10 percent of the world’s population had PCs, says Tony Salvador, director of ethnography and design research in Intel’s Emerging Markets Platform unit.

Friday’s announcement was only one of several steps Intel is taking to encourage technology adoption in nontraditional markets. On Wednesday, Intel unveiled a product it has demonstrated several times in recent months – the Community PC, which is designed for use in rural India.

That PC reflects design ethnography of the sort Salvador practices. The Community PC is rugged, designed to withstand temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius and equipped with a special monitor and filters to deal with dust. It comes with a software-restore key that will rebuild the system’s software at a keystroke if the PC fails. Finally, it can use a car battery as a backup power source, which is useful in areas where power failures are a daily fact of life. The PC will switch automatically between AC and DC power.

Though the Community PC, with a 15-inch color monitor, a 40-gigabyte hard disk, and 128 megabytes of RAM, will not compete with Negroponte’s $100 PC in cost, Salvador argues that it “is a concrete example of what it really costs” to bring personal computing to regions poor both economically and in basic power infrastructure. “How do you service it? How do you connect it? Those costs have to be factored in.”

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