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Free Computer (At A Price)
Jamais Cascio, 29 Nov 05

icon_pc_s.jpgHong Kong company Asiatotal is set to release"iT" -- a computer intended to be given away for free to users in the up-and-coming parts of the developing world, starting this month with Brazil. Unlike the One Laptop Per Child project, it's not meant as a tool for education; the iT computer is very much meant as a way to connect users to retailers. In fact, the iT is in almost every respect the Bizarro-world opposite of the $100 Laptop -- and a provocative challenge to those who would bypass the market to bring information tools to the global poor.

Here's what's known about the iT: it's a desktop design, and can only run on external power; it uses WindowsCE as its core operating system; it includes a variety of basic utility applications, but users cannot load new programs onto it (preventing virus attacks); it has no hard drive, using instead smart cards to store user data, and a small (7") flat screen; it has a modem for connecting to the Internet, and possibly an ethernet port (based on a photo on the site), but no wireless connection. In short, it's less-capable than a typical "normal" PC, arguably less-capable than the $100 Laptop design, and definitely less-open than either. It is being given away for free, however, and is not likely to generate the kind of black market that the OLPC design surely will.

But the most controversial aspect of the iT has to be the quick-connect sponsorship keys:

The hotkeys of iT are what makes it so appealing to both end-users and Sponsors. From an end-user point of view it means getting straight to what they're looking for with one touch. For the Sponsor, particularly lead sponsors such as a country's telecommunications companies, the potential is immense. Not only will Sponsors benefit from a huge new market, but the social responsibility and impact of being involved with iT cannot be underestimated. Not to mention the fact that sole ownership of a hotkey ensures a level of brand loyalty that you could only dream about.
There are fourteen hotkeys altogether. Ten of them are special, four are generic. [...] The ten special hotkeys will be solely 'owned' by their Sponsors. Touch any of these keys and you go directly to the Sponsor's site.

As far as I can see, there's no requirement that users hit these keys; in principle, a recipient of the iT computer could never have to encounter the sponsors at all. It's unclear whether the sponsorship is permanent, or if (during system updates, for example) the branding would change to reflect new underwriting.

I would suspect that most WorldChanging readers -- and authors -- would consider the closed-source, commercially-sponsored iT to be a poor comparison to the One Laptop Per Child design. The iT has a few distinct advantages, however: the sponsors have an incentive to encourage the use of the systems, and to provide useful services; the "free" system doesn't require funding from governments or NGOs for distribution; and -- most importantly -- the iT is here, not vaporware. As attractive as the OLPC concept machine is, a fully-functional version is still months away, and even that is not likely to meet all of the design criteria (such as being made for less than $100).

Hence my ambivalence about iT. For the parts of the developing world where access to the Internet can make a real economic and social difference, a system like the iT may be useful (I still think that something derived from a mobile phone is a better idea, but I digress). And as problematic as the closed and sponsored design of the iT is, in reality few users would take advantage of a Linux-based system's openness, and many are likely to find the products and services offered by the sponsors to be of interest. And if I dislike the hardware's physical design... well, that just means I've been using a Powerbook for too long.

Ultimately, if the iT computer succeeds, it will demonstrate a desire in the leapfrog nations for access to inexpensive information tools beyond mobile phones. If it fails, it will be a case study in what not to do, an object lesson in thinking that "free" (as in beer) trumps all other values. In both cases, subsequent projects -- such as the $100 Laptop -- will have much to learn from the result.

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For lack of a better term, unless asiatotal made their advertisement computer hack proof, they are in essence giving away free computers. I mean, they were in the first place, but there was a catch. What's going to prevent people from bypassing the security software/hardware (assuming it has security) to use the computer for anything they want?

Posted by: Benjamin Farahmand on 29 Nov 05

a free computer for poor people who dont have cash to buy products from advertisers supporting said product. Amstrad tried pulling this stunt in the UK a couple of years ago.

Posted by: pauric on 29 Nov 05

Both poor people computers will be hacked and yes, a cell phone/computer hybrid will probably have more penetration for the poorest (pre-paid computer/phones/connection to the Net).

Negroponte worries me. I see him as basically a salesman. Perhaps he is coming from a pure heart and with all the best intentions but... Besides, I wonder how close he is to his brother.

Posted by: gmoke on 29 Nov 05

If these become widely availible, then almost certainly some power user is going to wipe WinCE off, write a few drivers for the smart cards and then install some form of Linux. This distro of Linux might even fit on a smart card, just reboot and the card installs Linux.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 29 Nov 05

Fine, and what about the environmental consequences of the "rebound effect" that might come out of such PCs free availability? The more people get PCs, the more PCs on the market, the more PCs to recycle, the more pollution...

Which does not mean that I don't believe we can achieve the Global Information Society, but as we know the grey side of ICTs (pollution due to the disposal and recycling of electronic waste), shall we first make sure that we have environmental friendly PCs before even thinking about spreading them all around the world for free? Negroponte is definitely doing some kind of self-marketing bullshit some way or another!

Posted by: Yves Grassioulet on 30 Nov 05

Great find. And I too agree, cell phones/palms with internet capacity are the way to go.

This article by Cyrus Farivar in Slate should be interesting to readers:

Posted by: P.H. on 30 Nov 05

There is a sameness to both solutions that I find... lacking.

Posted by: csven on 30 Nov 05


put me on the beta list

nick consoletti

Posted by: nick consoletti on 30 Nov 05

I am sure for a user a jump from a voice/SMS mobile phone to mobile phone with a web browser is easier to do than a jump from non-computer user to iT.

Or could the iT be just another "manna-vaporware (

Posted by: Teemu on 30 Nov 05

This looks like a really stupid idea. Isn't the point of super-cheap computing that it offers access to creativity, with the ability to do what you please with the devices? Canned, ad-funded web-as-TV is soooo 1998.

BTW, what happens if/when the ads fail to sell?

Posted by: Alex on 1 Dec 05



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