An answer to the $100 PC?

An answer to the $100 PC?

Summary: George Ou and others have asked whether the $100 PC is possible. Perhaps we need to escape traditional conceptions of a computer in order to see the possibilities.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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George Ou asked in a recent blog post whether a $100 PC was possible. Well, perhaps we are missing the solution because we are limiting ourselves to traditional conceptions of a PC.

That notion occurred to me as I was reading an article on Tom's Hardware Guide about a computer-on-a-stick concept. The product in question included a preinstalled version of Linux plus a bunch of open source software (OpenOffice, Firefox, GAIM Instant Messenger and some PDF generation tools). As someone who finds Linux to be about as much fun as dancing with a woman covered in 3-inch thorns, it's worth pointing out that it's possible to do the same with a Windows OS...but it WOULD be more expensive.

Of course, it's not REALLY a computer, as it has no CPU to run anything. Rather, it's just a bootable USB Flash drive that has a bunch of software preinstalled.

Most modern computers enable booting off a USB device. That's an interesting notion, as you can carry your entire development environment (as an example) around with you in your pocket and save your files to the spare capacity on the drive. Goodbye having to configure a new computer to suit your needs.

Of course, you'd want a pretty beefy flash drive with decent capacity. As the referenced article indicates, though, Flash drives are up in the 4GB range these days, and I expect that they will reach the 20-30 GB range very quickly...a size where things start to get very interesting. Furthermore, USB 2.0 is pretty fast, and is likely to get faster in future revisions of the technology standard.

Currently, the referenced device costs $150. That price is likely to go down as time and economics of scale kick in.

The real cost savings are derived from the realization that a "desktop terminal" can be little more than a CPU, a USB port, a screen, a keyboard, a mouse and some system memory. No hard drive is required, and if one is willing to dispense with all other peripherals (CD/DVD drives, etc.), the package gets very cheap indeed.

Together, the USB Flash Drive / OS combination plus "dumb terminal" might exceed $100, but the low cost of the terminal could result in the devices getting sprinkled around like powdered sugar on a plate full of french toast (I must be hungry). McDonalds could certainly afford a $60-$70 dumb terminal into which people plug their USB Flash Drive.

That cost equation could result in there being more dumb terminals than there are USB Flash Drive / OS dongles, all in the interest of convenience. Adding it all together and averaging across the population might truly result in PC costs reaching the sub-$100 level. You'd pay under $100 for your "flash drive" OS and plug it into any terminal, which are commonplace due to the low cost of a machine stripped of all peripherals save for USB port in the front. Furthermore, you'd get something vastly more portable than a laptop.

I could try to hack together some numbers, but as Barbie used to say, "Math is hard," and besides, the hardware numbers aren't where they need to be yet so it would be a wasted effort.  Actually, it may have been GI Joe who said nasty things about the fine art of Mathematics (I was a wiz at math, actually), depending on whether the Barbie Liberation Organization had swapped its voice box. Yes, old story, but imagining Barbie growl "Eat Lead, Cobra!" or GI Joe purr "Let’s go shopping!" still makes me smile.

Topic: Hardware

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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133 comments
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  • Why?

    Why carry around an OS?

    Why carry around applications?

    These things are better left on a server.

    Personal Data, preffered Application Options extensions and themes, and preffered OS options I can understand - for that portability by hand makes perfect sense to me. It does away with the need to secure transport from a server to any endpoint - and minimises the need for authentication.

    Privacy issues become far simpler to manage.

    Thus, much of the workload of application services and terminals becomes standardized and far simpler to workload balance - thus maximising lon-line performance for software as services.

    It's about time all citizens were issued with personal a dongle from birth. In a perfect World, USB 3.0 would take us to the point where the terminal hardware standards are ready.

    Its the software and services that worry me. They still have a long, long, way to go.
    Stephen Wheeler
    • One major problem with Server based of anything

      Is that if there is a loss of connection due to whatever the reason (i.e. server is down, the remote connection cable cut, etc). Then you have 'ZERO'.

      Thin client which relies on server isn't a new thing. It hasn't caught on because without the network, you got nothing. With a PC, at least you can still do some work on it.
      JJ_z
    • Here's why...

      Imagine Bedouins (spelling is not usually a problem for me but...) who are mobile as a lifestyle. Where is their server? How do they authenticate?

      The USB drive solves a number of problems for people who either have little or no technology available to them (think remote villages without electricity that exist all over the world) who would be able to take advantage of computing via the USB flash drive.

      Thinking server centric limits you to technologically more advanced environments where economy computing is not a necessity as it would be in a less developed area of the world.

      Sometimes, I think that the mass availability of technology in some countries has blinded us to the real barriers that exist in other countries who lack the technological infrastructure that much of the West and Asia enjoys. And that colors our opinions (yes, even mine) to a point where discussing the have nots becomes one of "why not do it this way instead" rather than "how can we get them to a point where they can do it period, no matter how?"
      Confused by religion
      • LOL @ Remote Villages

        I can see it now:

        Slag: "Grok, you need go, make rain dance bring crops for village.."

        Grok: "Rain can wait, me checking hot profile on match.com from next village, me have date Friday night with Grizelda.."

        ;)
        itanalyst
      • Has anyone ever thought

        Why do these third world people in remote villages need a computer? What use is it to them, I guess they could use the spread sheet to keep a tally of the number of yaks they have. They could write reports on the last journey, that is if they can read and write their own language.

        Frankly I can't think of anything I'd miss less than a computer which has no connection to the internet, who's battery only lasts a few hours, needs to be set in the sun to recharge most of the day and that's from someone who feels lost without my laptop and internet connection, when some speeding idiot goes off the road and hits the power pole down the road taking the power out. Just thinking about that one I don't know why National Grid doesn't move that pole to the other side of the road, it gets hit so often.

        I can only think a $100 is only of value to the first and second world to achieve saturation. I would personally buy one at least to add to my collection. I can think of lots of things for which I could use one. However I really can't think of one good reason why someone living at the base level in some jungle or desert would spend $100 on a computer they have little or no use for when the could use that money more wisely.

        It's a matter of perspective and for us the way we see it we couldn't be without it, for them it's more a matter of survival or marginal advancement. When you look at how long and how difficult it was for our society to come to this point and you are expecting them to leapfrog over centuries of change to accept and use a computer without the benefit of any of those changes, not even attempt to accelerate those changes, is grossly inept.
        Gravitas@...
        • Ignorance gone to seed!

          You would do well to visit a ?third world? country were students struggle to get a good education without libraries or resources, competing among millions for a chance at a university place and hope of a better future. Many villages even with only intermittent electricity supply have at least one telephone connection be that copper or wireless technology.
          Any development that makes computers, the internet and the resulting information available to these kids is a step forward and the simpler the machine, usually the more reliable and the more reliable the better.
          Have a read how quickly illiterate kids who had never seen a computer picked it up and ran with it! http://www.apnic.net/mailing-lists/s-asia-it/archive/2002/08/msg00026.html
          KD_z
          • India is a different case.

            India as a nation has already entered the second world, although there are still parts which are classifiable as third world. If you have any doubt India takes many hundreds of US and European IT jobs, it gave aid to the hurricane victims while turning down offers of aid from other countries while they were experiencing a disaster at the same time. Again they went to help their neighbour and long time combatant in this latest disaster.

            They are becoming a major financial force in the world. Sure there is lots more to be done and as I said the second world can make more use of these computers. The point I was mailing was that in many of the most isolated communities they need to be brought up to speed like those in the letter.

            Even our own community has problems with the internet, many fall for scams are frustrated by hardware and software which fails to deliver or just fails. Many too have difficulty telling the true from the false, the good from the bad. Most ordinary none IT people have no idea how to protect them selves from the internet
            Gravitas@...
          • Third World

            Vast areas of India. Africa, Asia ++ are third world. Schools with no books or resources let alone a computer.
            The kids in India was an example of how illiterate kids can ?leapfrog over centuries of change? and ?accept and use a computer without the benefit of any of those changes? with no effort at all. Kids all over the world deserve access to information and knowledge.
            The first world should be looking at cheap computers and ways to bring internet access to remote villages. I also believe satellite TV should be running educational programs as you?d be surprised how many a remote village receive CNN but don?t have access to a dictionary or encyclopedia, but that?s for another discussion.
            Most of us in the first world have no idea the other half of the world exists let alone what they go through to get a good education.
            KD_z
    • You have to take your OS with you ...

      ... for the simple reason that too many customizations plug directly into the OS these days. Windows is especially heinous at this, but I have run into the same problem with Linux as well.

      And just to dig it in a little deeper, this is EXACTLY the reason most operating systems are so insecure these days.
      terry flores
  • No "intraweb?"

    >> a "desktop terminal" can be little more than
    >> a CPU, a USB port, a screen, a keyboard, a
    >> mouse and some system memory.

    A computer without the internet is just a hunk of metal and plastic now. No modem? No *DRs? No disk drives? Is this the dark ages?
    voice_of_all_reason
    • Good point

      ...add to the list of terminal features a network connection. No, I don't think you need a disc drive. Home users might want something beefier, but a $100 consumer wasn't looking for beefy, just functional.
      John Carroll
  • 4:1 highball

    Considering that Knoppix already fits nicely on a 1 GB flash stick with about 300 MB to spare, there's no need to wait for a 4 GB USB drive -- and the 1 GB devices are down to $50 for the latest one I bought.

    If 300 MB of /home (user store) isn't enough, most people don't really need everything that's included with Knoppix as it is.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • I'd still rather have

      3.3 GB of /home space than 300 MB, expecially if I plan on using it for more than a couple months.
      Michael Kelly
    • True

      300 MB IS a lot of space. Funny how quickly we get used to that kind of capacity. My first computer in college had a whopping 4MB hard drive. My second one had 20MB, which I thought I would never fill in a million years.

      When I suggested the 4GB...or went on to talk about 20-30GB USB Flash Drives, though, I was thinking about what it would take to make a USB Flash Drive a complete replacement for my current life. With that kind of capacity, I could store a bunch of music, a few videos, every document I've ever created, etc. and have it with me wherever I am, irrespective of whether a network connection exists.

      So, I'm obviously thinking bigger than makes sense for a $100 PC. 1GB may be plenty of space ($50), and all that's left is to build that stripped-down hardware terminal. Unfortunately, we only have $50 bucks left, so we may have to wait a few years until that 1GB drive is $10, leaving $90 for hardware which is bound to become cheaper in the future.
      John Carroll
      • Small Computer in a Big Box

        [i]1GB may be plenty of space ($50), and all that's left is to build that stripped-down hardware terminal. Unfortunately, we only have $50 bucks left, so we may have to wait a few years until that 1GB drive is $10, leaving $90 for hardware which is bound to become cheaper in the future.[/i]

        In the meantime, it lets some of us use alien systems comfortably. All I need to do with a Microsoft box is plug in the pen drive and reboot and I'm back to a usable system instead of whatever strangeness the box currently has on it.

        I rather suspect that your thornbush issues may also be related to expectations of the comforts of home instead of a traveller's one-night stand, since there's not much on a Knoppix installation to distinguish it at the UI level.

        Unless, of course, you aren't used to things like translucent windows and other stuff that Knoppix defaults to. I suppose that might be a bit disconcerting but it's easy enough to turn off.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
      • It's possible -- Think "recycling"

        Let's put it this way: I've got a Gateway Astro All-in-one -- 400MHz Celeron. I've up'd it to its max of 128Mb and a 10Gb hard drive, and it's served me well as a basic computer for the last 6 years. 'tain't what I'd call a gaming machine, but it handles word processing, spreadsheets, home inventory -- you name it.

        I've just checked on eBay, and found some Astros for sale there, all under $50. Let's just say the shipping could cost more than the PC.

        Now, I don't know if this particular PC would work as described in your article. I don't know if it would boot off a USB drive (I doubt it), but that's not my point. My point is that there are thousands of PCs out there that would work very well with the system you described that could be put together for less that $50, if you're willing to use "recycled" or "pre-owned" parts.

        Anyone up to giveing it a whirl?
        carrollj@...
      • First computers . . .

        My first computer, which I hand-built in 1972 when I was 7, had 1K of memory and no drives of any kind. From that perspective, even 4MB looks huge.
        HiRezL
      • Get REAL!

        [b]300 MB IS a lot of space. Funny how quickly we get used to that kind of capacity. My first computer in college had a whopping 4MB hard drive. My second one had 20MB, which I thought I would never fill in a million years.[/b]

        Ok.. And exactly HOW LONG did it take for you to fill that 20 Meg hard drive to capacity? How long did it take before you were tearing your hair out wondering what to delete?

        My computing experience from those dark ages - less than 6 months on a 40 Meg hard drive.

        [i][b]Axiom:[/b] There's NO such thing as "ENOUGH" when it comes to storage space. [/i]

        If this wasn't the case, we'd all STILL be using dinky sub-GB sized hard drives and manufacturers woudldn't be bending over backwards to make their drives bigger and more efficient with the way they store their 1's and 0's.

        300 MB worth of disk space, IMO, is barely enough for a SWAP file, let alone storing anything of any consequence. You might be able to store say, 10 documents (any type) that are about 30 KB in size. It's CHUMP CHANGE.
        Wolfie2K3
    • Go Puppy!

      I run PuppyLinux on a 128MB USB drive, and it uses less than 1/2 of it . . .
      http://www.goosee.com/puppy/
      HiRezL
  • Interesting...

    What exactly is it you don't find interesting? The whole bulkiness of the laptop, which ends up making it look too expensive, or just the choice in preloaded software?

    Bootable USB Linux can also easily be found dime-a-dozen nowadays, anyway. Expect it to be even sub-$50.

    Sub-$100 Windows-packed USB would still fail to hide the simple fact that software IS over-priced. Yes, I am aware it is a comodity, but still over-priced, nonetheless.

    I don't even see the need for an "answer" to the $100 PC.
    Anti_Zealot