Developing markets to get low-power PCs

VIA's president has big plans for getting the next billion people online, and it's about more than just cheap kit
Written by Matt Loney, Contributor
VIA Technologies, manufacturer of chipsets, low-power processors and small-form factor motherboards, is ramping up plans to develop a platform for computing in the developing world.

VIA president Wenchi Chen, fresh from the World Economic Forum in Davos, expounded his vision on Monday for a range of computing devices that would be suited to developing markets.

"Computers in the developing world have to operate with an unreliable infrastructure," said Chen during a briefing with journalists in London. "Current and voltage can go all over the place. If people [in developing countries] are going to invest in a system then they need to ensure it will last five years. You have to build long-lasting devices."

Chen said it is a myth that people will buy anything if computer makers hit the $100 price point. "It still has to look good. You can't just put regular components in a white box and expect it to sell because it's cheap."

Chen said VIA has been doing a lot of work on its vision to deliver affordable, accessible computing "to the next one billion people", but that it is still too early to say which device will be ideal.

VIA is planning a number of related launches this year that could include devices such as a "communication station" that would allow email, browsing and VoIP, a "media station" that would enable full computing but based on flash memory rather than a hard disk, and a full PC.

"The hard disk is one key issue that has to be looked at very carefully," said Chen. "You put in a hard disk and put Linux on it, and the next thing you know they have gone and put Windows on it -- probably for free -- and they start getting viruses. With flash you have more ability to manage what goes on there."

Richard Brown, director of marketing at VIA, said that VIA's key concern in its product development is power consumption. Over the past few years the company has bought the x86 CPU logic from the remains of one-time AMD competitor Cyrix and GPU technology, in the form of S3, as well as video encoding logic and networking. Its mini-ITX motherboards come with all these components built in, and include a fanless range, removing one of the key points of failure on PCs.

"We are trying to achieve the lowest power we can with all these components," said Brown. The 1GHz version of the company's Eden processor, designed for fanless systems, consumes 7W, and the more powerful 1.4GHz C3 consumes 20W. Intel x86 processors consume up to 100W.

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