Once a month
an article comes out talking about a $100 PC. Most recently MIT, with a
coalition of backers, is talking up an economical PC as a digital
necessity for emerging markets. As you probably know, I'm a huge
advocate of low-cost PCs,
but the $100 computer as conceived
will be a failure. The
specifications I've seen for an ultra-low-cost PC are woefully
underpowered and unable to perform common computing duties and will be
rejected by the intended beneficiaries.
It reminds me of a classic Seinfeld
episode where Elaine has an idea
bakery to sell only the tops of muffins. In a magnanimous
gesture, she decides to donate the bottom halves to the local homeless
shelter and here's what happens:
Excuse me, I'm Rebecca Demore
from the homeless
Elaine: Oh, hi.
Are you the ones leaving the
muffing pieces behind
Elaine: You've been
They're just stumps.
Elaine: Well they're
Oh, so you just assume that the
homeless will eat
them, they'll eat anything?
Mr. Lippman: No no, we
I know what you thought. They
don't have homes, they
don't have jobs, what do they need the top of a muffin for? They're
lucky to get the stumps.
Elaine: If the homeless
don't like them the homeless don't
have to eat them.
The homeless don't like them.
We've never gotten so many
complaints. Every two
minutes, "Where is the top of this muffin? Who ate the rest of this?"
Elaine: We were just
trying to help.
There's a great analogy from the muffins to low-cost PCs.
Well-intentioned advocates are offering a muffin stump of a computer to
"digital homeless". Those with the top-of-the-muffin computers are
expecting others to be satisfied with just email and other lightweight
Recently, Linspire did some research in several developing PC
markets. We traveled around the globe to see how poor people are using
PCs. The results were astounding. We saw homes
without running water with a very capable PC in one corner that the
whole family would use. This wasn't a low-end PC, but a
middle-of-the-road machine that the family used for surfing the
Internet, playing games, watching
movies, listening to music and educating their children.
To buy the computer, the family would take out a loan for $250-$400 and
often assemble their own computer (or have it assembled by friends).
They did not buy the cheapest computer available to them, but instead
insist on getting a fully functioning computer. To put it another way,
are making a decision to take out a loan that takes several years to
repay rather than have a computer "stump".
They recognize all the benefits
a computer can bring, and they want it all and are willing to make
to get it. They are not content with an email-only or feature-limited
Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge advocate for ultra-low-cost computers
(ULCC). Over the last few years Linspire, along with our OEM partners,
blazed a trail of low-cost computers. We started with the $299
then the $199
and the $169 disk-less Webstation
the laptop front it started with a $799
and late last year culminated with a $498
. We continue to do great
partners like Sub300
, who offer
low-cost computers without
any rebate gimmicks.
Our experience with
these initiatives has taught us a couple of things about ULCC:
1) Even poor people will hold out for a complete muffin, rather than a
Although it's tempting to try and hit a magic price point like $100 -
which is really just an arbitrary number given the US dollar
conversion - and ship a slow, memory-constrained computer, it is likely
to be rejected by its intended beneficiary. Better to ship a reasonably
performing computer, even at a slightly higher price. In our
experience, this means a minimum of 800MHz computer with
256MB RAM with a 10GB hard disk.
2) Ease of use is critical.
A computer that is low cost but too difficult to use will disappoint
customers. This is why Linspire has dedicated so much
engineering to make the first version of Linux that does not require
the command line to operate. (Of course you can still use it if you
prefer, but it's not required.) We've also made sure to include
audio-assist interactive tutorials
a fantastic printed manual
and self-running demonstration mode.
I look forward to the day when a $100 computer is a reality. And I
believe that the MIT initiative and others can bring new innovations to
the business that will cut the costs. (The display technology MIT is
working on is fascinating.) But it would be a mistake to champion a
computer stump when what the world needs and wants is a complete