Youthful spending links guns, gizmos and goatherds

The West's love affair with disposable technology has permanent implications for the rest of the world

According to a survey by insurance company, the youth of today's Britain are spendthrift wasters. Or, to put it another way, they're eager consumers of new technology and the driving force behind much innovation. Splashing out two hundred quid on a new phone or PDA is given no more thought than buying a new shirt, and the dictats of fashion work just as strongly in both cases. Nobody expects hardware or knitwear to last more than a year or so, and replacing the kit as soon as possible takes higher priority than buying stuff that lasts.

You can see this as reprehensible shortsightedness if you wish -- oh, the environmental impact! The unfocused dissipation of energy to no social end! The culture of ever-mounting debt! -- or a splendid indication of how modern society allows joie de vivre full reign. Buying new gadgets is fun: it keeps people like me and the population of Shanghai in work and keeps the R&D engineers busy inventing faster, cheaper, flashier IT that feeds back into useful stuff.

Which is where the Indian-designed Simputer is supposed to come in. This long-running project promises to test one of the great thought experiments of the IT industry -- that properly targeted, accessible, affordable technology can change the lives of those billions for whom £200 is closer to their annual income than a Saturday afternoon splurge. By using locally developed open-source software running on a Linux core, the Simputer avoids licence fees and has a set of features focused on the needs and capabilities of the rural poor.

Starting from a blank slate, it turns out the optimal hardware design for this task is a PDA. The combination of extreme portability, pen-based input, low power requirements and reasonable computing oomph is essential for villages with no mains power, low levels of literacy and many users per Simputer. That these technologies were originally invented to meet the needs of the affluent, mobile businessman is a nice essay in common humanity, but it also highlights one of the paradoxes of the Simputer.

For, despite its use of free software and local development teams, the thing costs no less than many standard PDAs -- at least 9,000 rupees (around £120), and probably much more until the production numbers go up. Bill Gates might like to talk to these people about his 'hardware will be free' theory, if he fancies a dose of reality: meanwhile, a product specifically designed for a very poor market ends up costing more than those aimed at the rich. What was that about open-source TCO?

Mass production is no respecter of social worth. Your price only comes down when you buy a lot of chips. The Simputer may be using an Intel StrongArm processor that's less advanced than the next-generation XScale chip of choice, but if it's buying in lots of 5,000 and the XScale PDA manufacturers are buying twenty times as many the end prices may not be that different. As a result, the kids in Reading will be getting a far better deal than the goatherd in Rajasthan -- even before the differences in disposable income

In another example of peculiar resonance, an identical problem has long been concerning another consumer of custom technology -- the military. For ages, the standard recipe for producing a new system for the war boys has been to find an expert contractor, define exactly what you want and then hand over a huge cheque while they build it from the ground up. This has never worked well, but in the days when really advanced technology was confined to really advanced boffins there wasn't much option.

These days, the capability of COTS -- Commercial Off The Shelf -- technology is so advanced, at such low cost, that the military are buying their systems from the same shops as the rest of us. Some customisation is required, of course, and there's still plenty of reason to spend heavily in secret, but much of the core tech around which the systems are built would be remarkably familiar to your average PC tech.

And all because of the insatiable appetite for new technology in the millions of businesses, homes and youthful pockets around the world. It's unlikely that Kevin thinks much about rural Asia or the Pentagon when he buys his second new phone of the year, but he's driving an economic machine that's defining what both can do.

For the Simputer designers, the question is whether they can better achieve their goals by building software that runs on an existing hardware platform, one where the cost is already minimised by large sales in the developed world. It would seem so -- and given the surprising correspondence between the needs of subsistence farmers, four-star generals and urban fashionistas there would be no harm and potential upsides for the whole industry were some mainstream platforms designed with this in mind.


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