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$100 Muffin Stumps


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 today 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 for a 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:

Rebecca: Excuse me, I'm Rebecca Demore from the homeless shelter.
Elaine: Oh, hi.

Rebecca: Are you the ones leaving the muffing pieces behind our shelter?
Elaine: You've been enjoying them?

Rebecca: They're just stumps.
Elaine: Well they're perfectly edible.

Rebecca: Oh, so you just assume that the homeless will eat them, they'll eat anything?
Mr. Lippman: No no, we just thought...

Rebecca: 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.

Rebecca: The homeless don't like them.
Elaine: Fine.

Rebecca: 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 the "digital homeless". Those with the top-of-the-muffin computers are expecting others to be satisfied with just email and other lightweight tasks.

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, they are making a decision to take out a loan that takes several years to repay rather than have a computer "stump".

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They recognize all the benefits a computer can bring, and they want it all and are willing to make sacrifice to get it. They are not content with an email-only or feature-limited solution.

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, has blazed a trail of low-cost computers. We started with the $299 PC, then the $199 PC and the $169 disk-less Webstation. On the laptop front it started with a $799 laptop and late last year culminated with a $498 laptop from Walmart.com. We continue to do great business through 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 stump.
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.

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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 muffin.

-- Michael
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