The $20 Laptop And The Race To The BottomThe $20 Laptop And The Race To The Bottom
India's <a href="http://www.informationweek.com/news/hardware/handheld/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=213000685">plans for a $20 notebook</a> have "too good to be true" written all over them. And no, at that price, I don't think it's feasible -- not even with Linux at the core. In fact, I don't think it's just infeasible. I think it's a bad idea, period.</p>
February 5, 2009
India's plans for a $20 notebook have "too good to be true" written all over them. And no, at that price, I don't think it's feasible -- not even with Linux at the core. In fact, I don't think it's just infeasible. I think it's a bad idea, period.
Let me get one thing out of the way. It's a Good Thing that we're now buying only the amount of computing you need for a given lifestyle, via netbooks and the like. But even there, things can only get so cheap. A friend of mine once asked me: "If I can get a machine this powerful today for $400 [he was looking at Dell's Web site], how come we haven't gotten to the point where I could get a PC for $50?" In theory he could do that -- by buying a used computer, where no cost of production figured in.
Even if you assume for the sake of argument that the software end of the $20 notebook costs nothing to produce -- that they can use some stock Linux build with no modification -- I see no way to pull together the parts they've hinted will be in this thing, and build it, and distribute it, for $20 a pop. Not without major back-end losses, anyway.
If the whole thing is a government-backended project, then they may be able to disguise the cost as a taxpayer-funded venture ... but it's still not a "$20 computer", no matter what anyone says. It's something where people pay $20 up-front and the rest is subsidized, much as the "$20 phone" you get for your cell plan is not $20, either.
The final issue is one of quality. Unless you're offering something worthwhile in the first place, the price point is not going to matter. A laptop that isn't even worth typing on is no laptop at all, no more so than a calculator whose buttons you can't even push properly. Not long ago I tested out a netbook machine from a major manufacturer I won't name (I'd like to give them a chance to do the right thing, you know?), and found that the keyboard was so poor that I couldn't even get the spacebar to work unless I hit it dead center. Given the way I type, it was nearly useless.
Most of my curiosity about this project didn't even stem from the price point, but the fact that Linux allegedly was being used as one of the underpinnings. It ought to be clear by now that there are some things even Linux can't fix.
[Addendum: Looks like the device in question isn't even a "laptop" at all, but a wirelessly-connected storage device. Looks like people, me included, were all too willing to believe the race to the bottom would go this far.] Follow me and the rest of InformationWeek on Twitter.
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