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Monday, Jun 09, 2003

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The secret behind cheaper computers

K.G. Kumar

THIS paper reported last week that according to information technology (IT) market research firm, IDC India, during January-March 2003, notebook computer sales grew by a staggering 71 per cent over the same period last year.

IDC said that the growth was three per cent higher than its initial forecast, adding that most of the growth came from the Government and small office/home office (SOHO) sector. The average home user accounted for only a minuscule percentage of the total sales of laptops.

Cut to Bangkok, where in mid-May, computer major Hewlett-Packard (HP) began selling a "people's notebook" that costs $450 (a little under Rs 22,000). In addition to the bare-bones model currently sold, HP plans to also offer a higher-end version that includes a CD-ROM drive for 25,000 baht (under Rs 28,000).

Little wonder that about 30,000 people showed up at the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre in Bangkok on the day of the launch of the people's computers, with some waiting in line from 3 a.m.

Thai Government officials expect around 300,000 notebooks to be sold in the current phase of the program, along with another 700,000 desktop personal computers (PCs).

So upbeat is demand that Thailand's Information and Communications Ministry, which is behind the drive to increase computer ownership in the country, is said to be in talks with Dell and the Association of Thai Computer Manufacturers, among others, to get more such computers out in the market.

Cut now to India where at the start of the month, IBM India announced the launch of a Rs 39,000 personal computer, the NetVista A30, its entry model desktop in the Asia-Pacific region. It features an Intel Pentium 4 processor, a lower-cost integrated graphics chip and a CD-ROM drive instead of a DVD or CD-RW drive.

IBM's new computer PC is not exactly cheap, but it does put a computer more within the reach of the average Indian. And the secret to the low costs of these fresh offerings? They are all loaded with Linux, the operating system from the free and open-source software movement.

Importantly, without some sort of official backing, such efforts could well come to naught. Gartner Asia-Pacific Research Director has been quoted as saying that the Linux products would never have been created if the Thai Government had not started the ball rolling, helped by the urging of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Back home, the President, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, recently called for more widespread use of open-source operating systems, when he dedicated the International Institute of Information Technology in Pune.

Does all this signify a change in trend? Are we set to see lower and lower priced computers? It's possible to say yes - provided manufacturers shift to free and open-source software to keep down costs, without sacrificing performance.

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