Some of you may be familiar with the People & Practices group at Intel,
especially Genevieve Bell's ethnographic studies, on which a lot of these
product decisions are based...

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006
PCs for the Masses?

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

By Michael Fitzgerald

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.

The Community PC costs less than 10,000 rupees (about $225), with a 15-inch
color monitor, a 40-gigabyte hard disk, and 128 megabytes of RAM. Though
it's more than double the projected cost of Negroponte's $100 PC, 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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