Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Who Wants the African PC Market?

Computer Aid International (a non-profit supplier of computers to developing countries), ZDnet UK, and a trio of African universities just released the results of a comparative study of low-cost, low-power computers for the African market. Few media outlets reported on the study, and those that did provided a somewhat inaccurate conclusion: Asus Eee is more suitable than OLPC’s XO machine for Africa. Other devices reviewed included Inveneo Computing Station, Intel’s Classmate PC and NComputing’s X300.

In fact, the full report is more nuanced in specifying which solutions are more suitable for individual users (Asus Eee) and which are better for school computer labs (NComputing X300). Computer Aid International (CAI) and its partners deserve credit for raising some important issues about the African PC market, including infrastructure challenges that can impact the suitability of computing solutions, particularly for rural areas. The report’s emphasis on power consumption and the changes they made to methodology (e.g., playback of downloaded rather than streaming video) is necessary for an honest evaluation of computing solutions for many developing countries. However, some critical issues were buried or not addressed in the study. For example, the Asus Eee tested by three of the four evaluation teams was the 701 model running a Linux operating system, a product that has been essentially abandoned by Asus in favor of models with Windows XP and a larger keyboard and screen. Similarly, the report promises to shed light on the total cost of ownership (TCO) for each of the evaluated devices, but estimates of critical cost factors such as maintenance, training, and replacement from theft or damage are not included in the analysis (see Vital Wave Consulting’s report, Affordable Computing for Developing-country Schools, for a thorough consideration of TCO for school computing solutions).

Though the CAI study is certainly welcome, it is perhaps most remarkable for what is not said – the competitive field vying for the African market is pretty thin. Their champion, Asus, has turned its attention to mature-market consumers, and neither OLPC nor Inveneo have the needed financial backing to rapidly scale in a market as diffuse and challenging as Africa. Intel’s Classmate PC (and other machines based on its reference design) is still around, but Intel’s focus on the low-end processor market may be waning. Of the 5 companies represented in the CAI testing, only NComputing (not yet one of the giants) seems committed to aggressively pursuing the education segment in emerging markets. These efforts may not be able to meet the steady growth in PC usage and private ownership in Africa. The completion of several large undersea cable projects could cause a spike in demand for all kinds of computing devices from Cape Town to Cairo over the next few years as a result of the imminent increase in low-cost bandwidth coming to the continent this year. CAI’s study suggests there’s ample opportunity for companies to step up and meet that demand.

No comments: