I've been hearing a lot about how revolutionary basic mobile phone infrastructure has been to the developing world. First, it has proven much easier to build wireless towers in developing areas than it would have been to build a wired infrastructure, so these areas are "leapfrogging" the wired buildup and going straight to mobile. Also, even in areas where people are very poor, entrepreneurs provide mobile phone-based calling services, like a pay-phone, and telegram-like text message delivery services, which make it much easier for people to keep in touch with distant relatives and business contacts. In places without good electrical infrastructure, you can pay for a mobile phone charging service, and drop your phone off to be charged while you're in the village selling your cassava or whatnot.
The big surprise has been how transformative it is for people at this economic level to have access to instantaneous electronic communication, but of course, it's only surprising if you've never considered how annoying it would be to have to walk half a day just to tell someone something that could have been said in a text message. And so, while $80 mini-laptops might be a fun curiosity for people like me, they could prove to be a major economic boost for a large number of people who are currently getting by with a low-end mobile phone as their primary digital communication device. If you're trying to set up business with a distributor in a distant city, enroll your child in a university, or arrange for your husband who's sending remittances from Dubai to see photographs of his children, an upgrade to a 7" laptop might make all the difference, and even if $80 is still too much for you, it's not too much for the local telecommunications mogul who can make a living charging you by the minute or the message.
And it's not just about the price that makes these ARM minis appealing. It's also their power-sipping nature, with the ability to run 7-10 hours on a small, cheap battery. That's good both for well-heeled road warriors and village users who charge it with a hand crank or a solar panel.
People complain that these low-end laptops just don't stand up to the capabilities of a full-grown laptop, and that's obviously true. But that's not really the question. What's essential is whether these devices offer enough functionality to be useful to the large group of people who will find their price, size, or power consumption useful. For people like me who might want something just a little bigger than the iPhone that I can carry around the house to check my email and browse the web on, or for people like the basket weaver or cassava seller who just want it to be better than three lines of text on an old Nokia, or the student that gets to have one laptop per class instead of one per school, or none at all.
We reported today that Chrome OS is expected to be released this week. Now Chrome OS is made to run on x86 chips, mainly netbooks, but the whole idea, as I see it, is to make Linux more accessible by tailoring the front-end toward web browsing and web apps, in other words, precisely what the average netbook user is doing. Whether people will choose Chrome OS over Windows 7, we'll have to wait and see, but I'm very interested to see whether the work that Google's doing on Chrome OS and the work on Android will eventually intersect to arrive at a top-notch UI for these sub-$100 micro notebooks. With the upcoming ARM Cortex A8 processor, which will be a lot faster than the ARM9 that's in the Easypc, combined with the work that Google, the OLPC team, and others are doing on the software front, it's quite likely that within a few years, the sub-$100 laptop market will be the new hotness.