Ndiyo is Swahili for "yes" -- and is also the name of a new non-profit organization set up to build and sell a low-cost network computer for the developing world. We've covered the question of how best to provide information services in low-income countries before, and I've argued that a beefed up mobile phone is a more reasonable course than a pared-down desktop. A big reason is that desktop computers, even pared-down ones, tend to be power-hungry and space intensive.
Ndiyo solves one half of that problem. Their "Nivo" unit -- "network in, video out" (PDF) -- is a so-called "thin client" desktop drawing only about 5 watts of power (compared to over 100 watts for a typical desktop PC). In locations where the power supply is spotty, lower-consumption devices are at a distinct advantage. For the Nivo, the main power draw is the monitor. Traditional CRTs can draw 75 watts or more; with the far greener flat panel screens dropping dramatically in cost, a Nivo + LCD system could draw as little as 20-30 watts of power, total.
The "thin client" model uses a single moderately powerful server splitting its time among a multitude of networked systems. Some data processing and the bulk of the storage is done on the server. Ndiyo units run a version of Linux along with a variety of free/open source Internet applications, all stored on the server. Thin clients have been available in the west for years, but never managed to replace PCs. Ndiyo believes that thin clients will do much better in places not already filled with networked PCs -- the lower cost and easier maintenance will be attractive for Internet cafés, small businesses and the like. The Ndiyo system is not meant as a home or personal computer.
That may be its undoing. One of the lessons of the information technology revolution everywhere it's hit is that people demonstrate a strong preference for individual machines, with private storage of data and customized interfaces. The Nivo as Internet terminal cannot be personalized in that way; it doesn't even have the capability to use smart cards to store personal preferences (something Ndiyo plans to fix in an upcoming version).
Still, a low-cost, low-power-consumption system is a more realistic catalyst for the spread of desktop information technology than is a chopped-down PC. It's particularly heartening to see the use of free/open source software at the core of a developing world computer. The Ndiyo device's current setup may not be perfect, but it has potential. Ndiyo's progress is definitely worth watching closely.
Link to the PDF isn't working.
(Sorry it took a day, I was out of town.)