The ten-dollar PC debate is back, this time with a prototype of a ‘$35 device’ thrown in. At the outset, it may sound incredible to talk about a computer with a $10 price tag, so let us first see if a $35 tag is feasible in the first place.

For perspective sake, let’s begin with the genesis of the debate.

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Labs fame unveiled a $100 laptop as part of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) programme. That price point was as low as at least one-sixth the price of a low-priced laptop around that time, yet its feasibility was somehow digested because it came from no less than Negroponte himself.

India’s union HRD minister Kapil Sibal, who flaunted the $35 prototype last week at a press conference, is no Negroponte, certainly.

Yet, the hi-talk is probably not a political fig this time, as had been the case a few years ago when a touted $10 PC had turned out to be, a loaded USB drive at best. This time, the prototype is reportedly born out of a joint effort of the IITs and the IISC and if so, that alone can be a reason to give the idea the credibility it deserves — no more, no less.

But there is more…

A Bangalore-based company AllGo Embedded Systems has produced a reference design similar to the prototype, which it had showcased at the Freescale Technology Forum in Orlando last month.

To check on the feasibility of the pricing, I considered it important to speak to AllGo.

AllGo says the pricing can be directly relative to the number of units. For example, the device can be manufactured for around $50 per piece for a scale of 10,000 units, while the price can come down to $45 per piece if the scale is upped to 100,000 units.

And yes, if the volumes go up to a million units then there can be a significant reduction in the price. AllGo refrains from indicating a price point for such high volumes, as that would be hypothetical now.

Nevertheless, the discussion does set a basis that makes price points of $35 and below look more realistic and achievable. Incidentally, Negroponte too earlier revised the price point for the OLPC and put a price tag of $75 to it.

Both Negroponte’s new OLPC and AllGo’s reference design are akin to Apple’s iPad.

AllGo uses a Freescale i.MX233 processor that clocks 450MHz and will be suited for running limited applications, which, nevertheless, should suffice educational and learning needs of students — and several media and communication needs of consumers. (AllGo joins the league of Bangalore-based companies like Notion Ink and Hidden Reflex that have come up on India’s innovation radar.)

There is no reason though why the capabilities of such a device can’t increase over time, with improvements in economies of scale and processors’ powers. After all, Moore’s Law, which has held true for more than 50 years now, does state that the number of transistors packed inside an integrated circuit will double every two years. There are no signs of the law going wrong in the next few years.

The price of a laptop used to be around $1,000 at the beginning of the decade. Today, one can have a low-cost netbook for around $300, while $200 price points are said to be very much within reach.

True, any talk of a below-$50 tag for a netbook device in the near term will be outright absurd, but it will be equally outdated not to still talk about a $35 tablet, as from a feasibility perspective, a $35 tablet can very much come into being.

Yes, it is being doubted, and not without reason that because it is being driven by the government, it could fail. But then, it’s important to note that only a government can promise the volumes required to make it succeed, while keeping shipments free of various duties.

No, I’m not saying that a ten-dollar device is also in sight…well, not yet.

(As published in Deccan Chronicle on July 29, 2010)

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