Interesting article about the future of computing…

October 13, 2005
An answer to the $100 PC?

Posted by John Carroll @ 9:02 am
George Ou asked in a recent blog post whether a $100 PC was possible. Well, perhaps we are missing the solution because we are limiting ourselves to traditional conceptions of a PC.

That notion occurred to me as I was reading an article on Tom's Hardware Guide about a computer-on-a-stick concept. The product in question included a preinstalled version of Linux plus a bunch of open source software (OpenOffice, Firefox, GAIM Instant Messenger and some PDF generation tools). As someone who finds Linux to be about as much fun as dancing with a woman covered in 3-inch thorns, it's worth pointing out that it's possible to do the same with a Windows OS…but it WOULD be more expensive.

Of course, it's not REALLY a computer, as it has no CPU to run anything. Rather, it's just a bootable USB Flash drive that has a bunch of software preinstalled.

Most modern computers enable booting off a USB device. That's an interesting notion, as you can carry your entire development environment (as an example) around with you in your pocket and save your files to the spare capacity on the drive. Goodbye having to configure a new computer to suit your needs.

Of course, you'd want a pretty beefy flash drive with decent capacity. As the referenced article indicates, though, Flash drives are up in the 4GB range these days, and I expect that they will reach the 20-30 GB range very quickly…a size where things start to get very interesting. Furthermore, USB 2.0 is pretty fast, and is likely to get faster in future revisions of the technology standard.

Currently, the referenced device costs $150. That price is likely to go down as time and economics of scale kick in.

The real cost savings are derived from the realization that a "desktop terminal" can be little more than a CPU, a USB port, a screen, a keyboard, a mouse and some system memory. No hard drive is required, and if one is willing to dispense with all other peripherals (CD/DVD drives, etc.), the package gets very cheap indeed.

Together, the USB Flash Drive / OS combination plus "dumb terminal" might exceed $100, but the low cost of the terminal could result in the devices getting sprinkled around like powdered sugar on a plate full of french toast (I must be hungry). McDonalds could certainly afford a $60-$70 dumb terminal into which people plug their USB Flash Drive.

That cost equation could result in there being more dumb terminals than there are USB Flash Drive / OS dongles, all in the interest of convenience. Adding it all together and averaging across the population might truly result in PC costs reaching the sub-$100 level. You'd pay under $100 for your "flash drive" OS and plug it into any terminal, which are commonplace due to the low cost of a machine stripped of all peripherals save for USB port in the front. Furthermore, you'd get something vastly more portable than a laptop.

I could try to hack together some numbers, but as Barbie used to say, "Math is hard," and besides, the hardware numbers aren't where they need to be yet so it would be a wasted effort. Actually, it may have been GI Joe who said nasty things about the fine art of Mathematics (I was a wiz at math, actually), depending on whether the Barbie Liberation Organization had swapped its voice box. Yes, old story, but imagining Barbie growl "Eat Lead, Cobra!" or GI Joe purr "Let’s go shopping!" still makes me smile.