The race is on. Again.
PC and other device makers have been trying to make computing more affordable for decades. Steve Job’s original vision for Apple’s Macintosh was reputed to be a $500 system the average family could afford. But the final design and other factors drove the price for the initial floppy-disk Mac to $2,499 at its debut in 1984. It took another 20 years for Apple to crack the $500 mark with its Mac Mini.
Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Sun’s Scott McNealy and others promised network computers would disrupt the PC’s dominance of the desktop with a sub-$500 and even sub-$200 alternative that didn’t require Microsoft software and would get all its software and updates from the Internet.
The network computer never took off for a number of reasons, not least of which was that PC makers themselves started to offer comparably priced systems. But that’s changing as handheld devices get smarter, cheaper and more powerful.
Enter AMD (again), with its Personal Internet Communicator (PIC) chip initiative, first launched about a year ago when it jump-started a low-cost device manufacturing effort in India and parts of Latin America.
In the United States, AMD made systems available to Katrina relief centers in Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Denver. Its popularity there gave Billy Edwards, a vice president and chief innovation officer at AMD, the idea there might be a market in the U.S. for PIC as well.
Recent discussions with Radio Shack led to an agreement that will see the nationwide retailer selling a $299 version of the PIC under its Presidian brand name, starting this weekend.
“Some of the people [at the relief centers] never used a computer before, and they got up and running with a Yahoo e-mail address and access to the FEMA forms and Craigslist and things like that without any IT staff,” Edwards told internetnews.com. “It was a real help for some of these people finding their families.”
AMD has staked out an aggressive goal it calls 50×15 designed to help 50 percent of the world gain computer access by the year 2015. While AMD licenses the design and supplies the chips, local manufacturers generally build the units. The PIC is now being sold additionally in parts of Russia, Turkey and China.
“We’ve learned a lot in a year about the needs of different regions,” Edwards said.
“Some places need different products but also different business models because, there are no Best Buys or mass retailers to go to and a few hundred dollars upfront is often too high a cost for the people we want to reach.”
One example, Cable & Wireless in Jamaica, offers a PIC for $9.95 per month as part of a customer’s regular phone bill.
Other low-cost specialty computing appliances for the kitchen and other parts of the home and office have come and gone, and come back again.
AMD competitor Intel launched a series of “platform definition centers” earlier around the globe this month, each with the goal of helping local manufacturers build and sell low-cost Intel-based computers.
Innovations include a PC running off a car battery as back up to an electrical outage, and a PC with a screen to catch or prevent real bugs from getting into the system.
Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Labs, has outlined designs for a $100 notebook PC based on an AMD processor it plans to show a prototype of later this year.
The unit includes a hand crank for when there is no power supply. He’s established a non-profit group for the effort called One Laptop Per Child.
Edwards admitted AMD or its partners may have oversold the PIC in some areas where customers were led to believe they were getting a PC and were disappointed. “It’s not a PC, it’s an Internet communicator.”
That said, Edwards is quick to point out that the compact, three-pound, rugged, rectangular unit does a lot of what people expect a PC to do. It can connect to the Internet via dial-up or broadband connection, includes four USB ports for attaching peripherals, and runs on Microsoft’s Windows CE operating system, a close cousin of standard Windows designed for mobile devices. Windows Media Player and Macromedia’s Flash Player are also included.
Also, unlike network computers, PIC can be put to work without Internet connectivity; word processing and spreadsheet software is built-in.
The PIC is based on AMD’s Geode low-power processor and is far quieter than most standard PCs because it doesn’t require a fan. With its VGA output, PIC connects to any of a number of standard monitors. There is a one-button on/off switch, and software updates are handled automatically by the ISP.
“Hector [AMD CEO Hector Ruiz] and I have worked on this for a number of years and we believe a lot of the world’s population wants this,” Edwards said. “You can do good things, and have it be a good business. Those two aren’t mutually exclusive.”