Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Linux for India

A week ago, I turned off my home computer. By then, it had run nonstop for a month. This is a two year old computer, which is our primary home computer. It runs Linux.

In many ways, Linux is tailor made for India: the cost is minimal, the software is available in source form, which allows modifications, and there is a vast user base built around localizing it to Indian languages. This post is about two projects in particular that show how Linux is well-suited to the Indian market.

The first is about the Asus EEE PC. This computer generated a lot of interest when it was released in November last year. It is a tiny computer: about as big as a small hardcover book. It is less than 1kg in weight and comes with a Solid State Disk that works perfectly even in a rattling bus. The screen is small at seven inches, but very readable. At the desk, the EEE can be attached to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse. The external monitor can be driven at a maximum resolution of 1280x1024, which is not small by any means. The most inviting aspect of the EEE is the price: $400 for a medium configuration is quite cheap.

I bought the EEE in late December, and used it for a few months. It was my main home computer, and I enjoyed traveling with the tiny machine. The keyboard was cramped for long typing sessions, but I don't type too much when I'm on the move. Further, there were small, cheap and handy full-sized keyboards that I could attach via USB if I needed to. The computer worked really well for me till my father saw it, and wanted to try it for a while. This was the first Linux machine that he would use, so I wasn't sure it would work out. Today marks a month of his using the EEE. He loves the size, he loves the fact that it connects to the Internet wirelessly, and that it is perfect for checking his webmail. He was particularly happy that it wasn't Windows, because malicious online sites target Windows users. It looks like he is going to keep the EEE PC.

The initial EEE PC hype was surprising -- the blogs were rich with praise. After using it for under half a year, and seeing my father's response, I'm well convinced of its utility.

The EEE can easily serve as a home computer for a family. With an additional full-sized display, keyboard and mouse, it is just as comfortable as a home computer. It is a product that could only be possible with Linux. At $400 for the computer, there isn't much room to charge for a software license as well. Even at $50 for an OEM license of an operating system, the cost of the OS is significant.

This is an example of a project that wouldn't be possible without Linux. As the price of hardware drives down, there are two options: existing software becomes cheaper, or the existing software gets replaced. It is hard to justify a $300 license charge for a computer that costs $400.

The EEE has a slower processor, but even that is good enough. As computers get more powerful, even the slower processors can handle everyday tasks.

How powerful are today's computers? Well, for starters, you could allow two people to use the computer simultaneously, and neither would notice that there was anyone else on their computer. The second project that I'm excited about does exactly that. It is called Userful Desktop multiplier, and it allows more than one person to access the computer using his own keyboard, mouse and display. The userful program is proprietary, though they do hand out two user licenses for free. I have been using this for about a month, and my wife and I can simultaneously access the computer, without being able to tell that the other is on. Each user gets his own display, and can surf the web, read and write mail, and do everything else.

There are many advantages to having one computer rather than two. The big advantage is cost, since you only need to purchase a single computer. The additional cost of a keyboard, mouse and display are minimal, and would be required for two computers anyway. Other advantages include lower maintenance, and much less noise. Further, when you upgrade one computer, both your terminals are upgraded. The biggest saving would be power -- over the life of a computer, we spend more for electricity than the cost of the computer itself. This is not true of laptops currently, since they are expensive and power efficient, but is true for nearly all desktops.

The computer that we are using with Userful is a two year old, entry level computer. It has 1.5G of RAM, which is its strongest feature. Apart from that, it has a standard Celeron processor. The video card was purchased separately, since it needs to be able to drive two displays. That is a simple requirement, and such video cards can be bought for $20 and up.

Userful is another example of a software that no existing company would be much interested in. Intel would sell fewer processors if two computers in every home were replaced by a single one. Microsoft would sell half as many software licenses. Further, the current Microsoft Windows license does not allow two users to simultaneously access a computer. For that, you have to buy the server version, which costs significantly higher. I am sure that Windows can be made to support two simultaneous users on a single computer, but Microsoft has no incentive to do so. The Userful corporation could do it, but then you'd need to purchase two licenses from Microsoft, increasing the cost.

Userful is tailor made for computer labs around the world. Even with the free license, one can halve the number of computers used in the lab. That alone will reduce the ongoing costs associated with computer labs in schools and cybercafes around India. Further, since many cybercafes and labs need a backup power generator: this reduces the price for the generator and the fuel.

Both the EEE PC and Userful are examples of ventures that have been made possible by Linux. They give more choice and power to the user rather than the software/hardware vendor. They work well for a specific need where the user stands to gain a lot, and it is a need that is not being currently met. Specifically for price-sensitive markets like the Indian home, both these approaches hold a great deal of potential.