The Third World Goes High Tech
Thursday, June 1, 2006
Corporations specializing in information technology have discovered a new market — the world’s poor. But high-tech is often already there, and Third World innovations may soon be available in the developed world.
The computer of the future is like a pet: always wanting to be fed — not unlike an oversized Tamagotchi. Otherwise, it causes trouble. After 10 hours in front of the monitor, you have to run down to the nearest kiosk, buy a new prepaid card, scratch free the code and type it in. Those who don’t are reminded by the computer to please pay their fee. Eventually the machine runs out of patience and it begins gradually suspending one function after another — until hardly anything works anymore. At that point, the only thing to do is head for the kiosk.
The world’s next bestselling computer could actually work like that — at least according to the Microsoft Corporation. “Flexgo” is what the new payment system is called and it’s intended to make Windows affordable for the non-rich in developing countries.
The Internet computer works just like a prepaid mobile phone. Subsidies help keep the price of the new machine low, so that it can be sold for only about $300 — about half the normal price. Using the computer, however, costs money, which the user pays a little at a time, by means of prepaid cards. Eventually, the computer belongs to the customer — provided the payments have been punctual. Those who don’t pay are punished. The computer simply switches itself off.
For now, Flexgo computers can be purchased only in Brazil but Mexico, Russia, India and China are set to follow in the coming months. And it represents a surprising change of course for Microsoft. As recently as March, Microsoft was mocking the $100 laptop developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for children in the Third World. Microsoft argued that mobile phones provide the best means of granting the poor access to the digital world, not personal computers. The change of course likely results mainly from the small difference in the operating system between the two computers. Unlike MIT’s $100 laptops, Flexgo computers don’t use the Linux system, which is free of charge, but a version of Windows.