Monday, November 24, 2008

Wanted: A Mosquito-repellant Netbook

Canonical, the company behind the popular Linux-based Ubuntu operating system, and ARM, makers of 80% of the world’s mobile phone chips, announced this week they are working together on a version of Ubuntu that will run on ARM-powered netbooks. The big selling point: the OS will sip power so sparingly that users will be able to run them as long, and recharge as seldom, as their mobile phone.

This would be good news indeed for the millions (or billions?) of emerging-market computer users who do not have access to a constant, reliable power supply. Having recently established a Caribbean field office in the Dominican Republic, Vital Wave Consulting can appreciate the need for a long battery life, not to mention a first-rate wireless antenna, heat and humidity resistance, and a tolerance for extreme power fluctuations. (Our Caribbean field officer would instantly snap up a computer that also repels mosquitoes.) For technology companies based in mature markets, or even developed enclaves of emerging markets, it is easy to lose sight of the challenges of being productive in an environment where hardware, Internet connectivity and electrical power is expensive, unreliable and difficult to acquire. To establish an Internet connection in a rural town in the Dominican Republic, for example, required 6 weeks, two costly trips to a neighboring city, and $40 per month for a weak DSL connection. The router had to be delivered to a neighboring school because there are no street addresses to locate the house, and frequent, long blackouts have rendered the service unusable for days at a time. Hundreds of millions of potential computer users in emerging markets face similar challenges every day.

Computer companies have done an impressive job of reducing prices for hardware and software (though in many developing countries, tariffs, regulatory rules and tight supply make computers and connectivity more expensive than in developed countries). There is still an enormous market opportunity, however, for technology companies that design for unsteady and unreliable power supplies, low Internet speeds, and environmental hazards like heat, humidity and dust. Technology companies can also gain a competitive advantage by providing maintenance, support and guarantees. Though these services may increase prices and create personnel or supply chain challenges, they are a significant differentiator in markets where people are already paying dearly for “low-cost” devices.

Also in the news:

  • MTN aims to offer $10 mobiles and $40 smartphones
  • Telecoms activity in China and India despite economic gloom
  • SlingBox a good fit with emerging markets

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