Last month, Brad Stone and Ashlee Vance had an interesting article in the New York Times on `netbooks'. If you haven't been noticing the `netbook revolution', this is worth reading.
Netbooks are small and cheap notebooks. The tradeoffs that they emphasise are low price, low weight, ruggedness and plentiful connectivity. These things are achieved by ceding ground on screen size and by using cheap CPUs (which are still surprisingly fast). The free operating system Linux plays an important role on netbooks, which helps reduce prices in two ways: by avoiding the payment for the operating system and by being resource efficient. Netbook users emphasise doing things on the network: e.g. instead of running OpenOffice on a notebook computer, the netbook user is more likely to use Google documents to edit and share a document `in the cloud', on the Internet. At the same time, today's netbooks have the horsepower required to run Open Office. Here is one example of a relatively expensive netbook, which is 1.3 kg. Here is another example, this one from Dell.
From an Indian perspective, the rise of netbooks is particularly precious because it puts computing on the go within reach of more people in the workforce. The relative ruggedness of netbooks will also help in India. Netbooks seem to range from $200 to $400 which is roughly Rs.10,000 to Rs.20,000.
I suppose in a year from now, good netbooks will be at Rs.10,000. By that time, 3G networks will be available all over India, and given their emphasis on connectivity, netbooks will put in HSDPA support as standard equipment. This will make possible innovations in business process design in many industries. It's time to start thinking about what markets you could revolutionise, given a portable computer at Rs.10,000 with broadband Internet connectivity.
Many people thought that cheaper computers matter to education, and the `OLPC' project tried to push towards that goal. In retrospect, I think both those propositions have fared poorly. It seems increasingly clear that computers aren't important to elementary education, and that real progress towards cheap computers came from the ordinary forces of capitalism, with firms like Asus or Dell trying to discover new products and markets, rather than from OLPC.