Internet PC Cheaper and Eco-Friendlier


This article was published by Newsletter, issue #5, 2005-03-10.

Despite the ever-lower prices of PCs and their increasing compliance with recycling and power conservation guidelines, modern PCs are still criticized as being too expensive to buy en masse, particularly for schools and other facilities that need large numbers of computers, but have little money to purchase them. Another problem for such facilities, is that when a mainstream PC is utilized exclusively for Internet access, much of the machine's local data storage capabilities (i.e., hard drive and optical drives) are unused and thus wasted. In addition, most PCs continue to be manufactured using lead and other toxic substances that leach into the soil and water after disposal.

In October of 2004, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer challenged the computer industry to build a $100 PC. One might hope that his call for affordable PCs was meant so that people in poor countries could get the computer experience and Internet access needed to develop commercially and thus improve their living conditions. Instead, Ballmer was referring to his solution for stemming the piracy of Microsoft products (especially Windows and Office software) in emerging markets, which has become a major concern for the industry giant. In the speech to technology executives, Ballmer claimed that "PCs are not selling to the lower end of the population in China and India. People buying machines there are relatively affluent…" and thus should pay full price. Apparently his thinking is that, if hardware manufacturers drop PC prices to $100, it will allow citizens and businesses in poor countries to pay more to Microsoft. In the U.S., the cost of a legal copy of Microsoft Windows can range from $100 (for an OEM version, whose license is useable only once) to $240 (for a reusable license).

The technology community quickly responded that it is ludicrous for Microsoft to expect PC makers to cut their razor-thin profit margins (typically 1-3 percent) even more, just so that Microsoft can enjoy margins estimated at 400 percent, while selling computers in which the operating system alone would comprise the bulk of the cost. Techies pointed out that Linux, a free operating system, would be the ideal replacement for (expensive) Windows.

To that end, SolarPC began selling a $100 PC called the SolarLite, which runs Linux, and not Windows. The book-sized machine weighs approximately three pounds, and has a rugged no-moving-parts design that could be ideal for poor, rural environments. Instead of using a hard drive, it comes with a less expensive Flash drive — pre-loaded with dozens of software programs, and links to free development software and education programs. The solid-state computer is aimed at organizations that need a maintenance-free Internet PC.

The SolarLite is designed to be an environmentally friendly computer: It utilizes a lightweight, recyclable, aluminum case, as well as a lead-free motherboard. The machine runs cool and quiet, and requires only about 10 watts of energy, which is a fraction of what a conventional PC consumes. The SolarLite has no built-in power supply, thus saving weight and expense. Like all other SolarPC computers, this innovative PC can be run from a solar panel, a car battery, or even a bicycle-based generator. That gives new meaning to the computer term "clock cycles"!

SolarPC, a Nevada-based firm, also announced the Global Education Link (GEL) project, an initiative whose goal is to give away a million SolarLite computers to schools in poor countries. The purpose of the GEL project is to "improve education in third world countries and thereby encourage self-sufficiency and promote world harmony".

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.