The Rise of 4P Computing Solutions for the Developing World


Last August, I crowded a few friends into a Japanese restaurant in Silicon Valley to talk about technology in the developing world. Back then, the discussion swirled around One Laptop Per Child, as it was the most visible manifestation of our collective drive to spread appropriate information and communication technology beyond the world's elite.

The first 3PC entrant

I am hoping to reconvene a similar thoughtful discussion next week in San Francisco, but this time, OLPC will be but one option for us to talk about. Now not a day goes by without another announcement of a new laptop in the OLPC space.

Just check out the weird Van Der Led "Jisus laptop" to see how intense the competition is for what I am calling "4P Computing".

4P Computing

What is "4P Computing"? Its a simple acronym I just made up to describe these computing devices that are now responding to three market requirements of the developing world, and a better term than Intel's "netbook" or the industry's UMPC (ultra-mobile PC) and ULPC (ultra low-cost PC). The term "4P Computing" leaves open the form factor and focuses on what really matters:


In the developing world, grid electricity is rare, and generator power is shockingly expensive. Just listen to Michail Bletsas talk about the Negroponte-financed Cambodian school that inspired OLPC:

The largest operating expense for that school is the diesel fuel for the generator at this point in time. That includes airfare and living expenses for the volunteer teachers that teach there. That includes computers, amortized over 5 years. That includes building and maintaining the school. Getting diesel fuel to power the generator is the biggest ongoing operating expense.
To reach any level of market penetration, computers must be highly energy efficient, mainly to allow them to run off solar or other alternate energy sources, including human power. High energy efficiency also reduces heat waste, negating the need for a fan or other dust openings in the form factor, increasing processor lifespan.

sugar on classmate pc
Measuring Sugar on the Clasmmate


If you look at any cybercafé in the developing world, you'll see people actively engaged with computers, but only using a few applications. Web browsing, including web-email and video watching, listening to MP3's, creating documents, and doing light calculations. These activities do not require high processing resources. In fact, the more progressive Internet cafés are using thin clients sharing a single processor.

What people do want is easy-to-use hardware and software that does not need constant maintenance. Specifically, software that resists viruses, the bane of any beginner user who doesn't understand the real malice lurking online. Oh and software that is essentially free.

Yet, speed is not a major concern when Internet speeds are measured in Kbs, not Mbs. In addition, many cultures measure time in days or even seasons, so microseconds and even seconds are not fretted over. For all those that bemoan Sugar's speed, the usual response I hear overseas is: "What's your hurry?"


As Donna and others point out in the comments, this type of computing device must be portable. That means both lightweight and small enough to carry around in a backpack or under a child's arm, and yet rugged enough to survive such portability on a daily basis.

Ruggeness extends from a strong physical design, down to water and dust resistant cases, solid-state memory, and screens that can be read in daylight. Yet weight cannot exceed a few pounds with 2 kilograms the maximum upper limit. At that point both the physical effort to carry the machine and its mass if dropped, make it impractical for developing world environments where dedicated computer rooms or home offices are rare.

There, most activity happens in a communal setting, be it the living room, dining room table, or front porch. Computing will need to bend to this model.

olpc asus eee kids
Happy $400 Asus Eee PC users


Why did Nicholas Negroponte start with the "$100 laptop" moniker? Because people understand price, they respond to a barrier breaking move, and $100 is a nice number to dream about. While $100 is still a dream for OLPC, even the $400 G1G1 reality has set a new price point.

At $400, the growing middle class in Africa, Asia, and South America can buy their first computer, no matter what Annette Jump at Gartner says. $400 may be a month's salary to many, but computers were a month's salary in the US until not too long ago, and that didn't slow adoption. Add in computing as a way to improve children's education, and as any parent will tell you, price becomes secondary.

But price still matters. At $400 or less the developing world makert will expand rapidly and a whole other market emerges. As G1G1 proved first, at least 81,000 people in America and Canada will buy a laptop, if only to tinker with it. Asus has taken that idea and expanded it with the Eee PC to about 500,000 laptops last year with a 3.1 million goal for 2008.

4P Computing Players

Borrowing liberally from the Laptop Mag low-cost laptop cheat sheet, I've made the following comparison of the current 4P Computing players:

4PC NamePowerPerformPortabilityPrice
Asus Eee PCNoYes
Classmate/2Go PCNoYesNoYes
Elonex OneYesYesYesYes
Everex CloudbookYesYesNoYes
HP Mini-Note PCNoYesNoNo
Norhtec GeckoYesYesYesYes
OLPC XO-1YesYesYesYes

No matter if you agree with my new 4PC tag line, I think we can all agree that this ever-expanding list of computing options realizes one of the dreams that both Nicholas Negroponte and I share: showing technology companies that there is both a mission and a market in the developing world.

3P - 4P Computing Update:

This post was originally entitled "3P Computing" as I omitted portability from the metrics, considering it a given. Thanks to the comments below, I've changed the post to reflect this required "P" for greater clarity on this computing classification.

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Great article!

I would disagree that the OLPC is slow. Configured for adult use, the OLPC is plenty powerful for all my everyday tasks. It is other non-free OS's that have suffered too much bloat over the years.

The OLPC's advantage over all the other 3P machines is power usage indeed. It is very efficient, and will only become more so over time with the hardware improvements.

I have one more P to add to the list. How about "Portability"? I'm curious to see how the sizes/weights of the various 3P devices match up, if only because this class of computer was originally intended to be portable by KIDS. When the small, budget laptops start to be designed for adult users, will their size, weight, and price start to creep back up toward those of standard laptops? Or will the machines and their prices both remain smaller than the average garden-variety laptop? Inquiring minds are curious to see what the trend will be.

Wayan wrote:

"But price still matters. At $400 or less the developing world makert will expand rapidly and a whole other market emerges. As G1G1 proved first, at least 81,000 people in America and Canada will buy a laptop, if only to tinker with it. Asus has taken that idea and expanded it with the Eee PC to about 500,000 laptops last year with a 3.1 million goal for 2008."

I don't think regular people will buy these under-powered, incomplete laptops for $400 when they can get something much better for $600.

You must remember that people need -or expect - a regular hard drive, a cd drive, the ability to install third-party off-the-shelf software, etc.

It is one thing to promote these under-performing devices for use by children ('they are better than nothing"). It is a very different thing to convince people to spemnd their hard-earned money on this second wave of the Lindows debacle at Walmart. Remember that $400 fiasco?

For better or worse, people want mainstream software, mainstream hardware and mainstream OS. If that were not the case, Linux would be big in the consumer market....


You can keep calling 3PC's whatever you want, but I'll let the Eee PC numbers speak for themselves. 500,000K is an impressive run for a niche product its first 6 months. The wave of copycats investing in this space says that people smarter than both of us are willing to bet millions that there is unmet demand for just what I describe here.


I like your P - Portability - people expect a portable device. I can't remember seeing a defined office or study in a middle class developing world home. Most activity happens in a communal setting, be it the living room, dining room table, or front porch. Computing will need to bend to this model.

And I'll have to bend my semantics and give up the hope for a See3P.O(rg) website.

Irvin, I haven't missed the hard drive or CD drive at all. The USB and card drives allow me extra storage space, most of the stuff I want is downloadable anyway, and more is moving in that direction.

Wayan, what about ruggedness? Do you think that's more of a "nice to have" than a requirement, even in the developing world? (I haven't thought of a good P-word substitute for ruggedness ... pugilistic?)

Wayan wrote:

"You can keep calling 3PC's whatever you want"

Hey, Wayan, don't go all defensive on me :-). I just described the computers and pointed out what their glaring weaknesses are. After all, let's not kid ourselves here, the reason for the low price is quite obvious: the manufacturers are cutting corners on the software and hardware side.

There is no technological breakthrough here (OLPC is the only one attempting to do something new with the display and the mesh networking). What we have is sub-par computers being sold to people at a price buyers find attractive. Time will tell what people actually think of their buy once they use it for 6 months.

"I'll let the Eee PC numbers speak for themselves. 500,000K is an impressive run for a niche product its first 6 months."

True. That can be directly attributed to OLPC's marketing efforts. The real test is whether this is a sustainable business model: make under-performing computers at slightly below-market prices and have people trade functionality for price.

"The wave of copycats investing in this space says that people smarter than both of us are willing to bet millions that there is unmet demand for just what I describe here."

People smarter than us invested in Enron. People smarter than us are responsible for the mrtgage crisis in the USA. People smarter than us thought that the $400 Lindows computer at Walmart would be a hit!

I do agree, though, that there is a wave of copycats. Why do you think that is so? I'll tell you why: because there is profit in selling ultra-cheap, sub-par computers to those who believe the hype created by OLPC. It is very easy to manufacture these crappy devices.

Once again, I'll say it: there is no value whatsoever in paying $400 for a limited device when $499 will get you a nice run-of-the-mill, fully functional laptop from Dell.

The only offer worth considering at this point is the XO at under USA$200 (did I just defend Prof. Negroponte????). At least, it brings something new to the table.

Finally, don't be fooled by the numbers: laptop prices have been going down steadily for the past few years. What you see is not anything special...

Irvin; I actually kinda agree with you, but I think $400 will be the top price on these nP computers; and they're priced high currently because the manufacturers are still thinking about them from a notebook-computing standpoint, not a portable device model. And remember, the actual cost of an OLPC is $200 -- which I think is a much more attractive price point.

I do believe there is a niche - even in the commercial market -- for a low-cost, high-function, ultra-portable machine (where "good" portability is a proxy for lightweight, ruggedness -- I need to toss it in a bag and go -- and also low power consumption -- I don't want to be searching for an outlet at every layover / coffeeshop/ etc). These minis don't need to run the latest 3D MMORPG, crunch massive data, photoshop/gimp, or IMHO even be expected to do serious document work (except in texty/LaTEX modes). I do expect it to get online, let me read documents, write down notes, move around files locally and via the network/USB, and let me customize it by adding more functionality to it.

Nice post--and I like Donna's point about Portability too.

Irwin, the people who bought EEEs know they could have had a Dell for a little bit more. They made a conscious decision to buy the EEE instead because it does what they need it to do (what Jon Camfield said). Of course, these people probably have a 'real' computer at home. By the same token, a 'real' tv at home doesn't stop people from buying video iPods.

I got a Dell D600 ($250AU) for half what I paid for my Eee ($499AU).
Yes its a second hand Dell and too big to fit in a carry bag.
Yes its got a 14 inch screen with good readability.
Yes it has a 1.4GHz Centrino processor.

But the Dell is my desktop machine. I use it as my workhorse in graphics and office work.

My Eee is my take-anywhere, throw-in-a-bag, emergency PC.
In conjunction with my HSDPA modem I have on-the-go internet and thats what UMPCs are all about. Its a usage mode you just wont get out of a larger computer.

P is for Portability. If you don't have a portability need then you don't buy a computer with a 7 inch screen.

Welcome to Sesame Street. Our letter for today is 'P', children.

I think that the computer is more of an anomaly than these nP machines.

The thing is, computers are a fad that are largely being driven by the Internet. While people have tried to create Internet appliances, I think that they have failed largely for one reason: early devices were low resolution and bound to TVs, while current devices are low resolution and tiny screens. Computers like the XO and the Eee address this problem with larger, higher resolution screens.

The bit about these devices being computers that run Linux is almost irrelevant, since I'm willing to bet that most people could care less. It doesn't matter because they aren't meant to be general purpose computers. They are meant simply to fulfill certain tasks. For the XO that is education. For the Eee, that is a personal internet appliance.

The computer is dying, and in doing so it will return to it's origins: businesses who need it for number crunching, to people who need flexible tools to design and create (e.g. creating music and video and websites), and yes to the geeks. Everyone else will end up using a $500 portable appliance that will do what it was designed to do without the headaches of a general purpose computer. And most people will be happy to discover that they don't care if it runs Windows or Linux or Mac OS X.

@ Jordan,
I note with wonder your statement about the "larger, higher resolution screens" featured by the XO and Eee. Just what are the Eee's and XO's screens larger than? Have you failed to notice the entire interesting category of computers some call "laptops"?

This new 3P concept is based on some marketting insight.

In the 1980s people stopped buying more powerful electronic calculators as the new breed outfeatured them. From then on the big market in calculators is in the very low end, throw away, models. The reason was that the newer, high end models could do things 99% of the consumers couldn't use anyway. Eg, I don't know many people who would do matrix calculations on a hand-calculator.

Lore has it that Bill G promised the computer manifacturers this wouldn't happen to computers. MS would bring out new versions of Windows to stress any hardware they could make ("Andy giveth and Bill taketh away").

We are now on the point were most people don't want more power, but more convenience: the above 3Ps. Convenience that can only be brought by REDUCING computational (and electrical) power.

People might hammer all they want on more speed and larger screens, but if I want to work while commuting, I need battery power, readability, low weight, and small size. I won't be able to play some high speed game, but for that I can buy a Nintendo, Sony or whatever handheld gadget. And for watching films on the train, I could use an iPod touch.

It is obvious that the manufacturers don't like this approach. You can't make much money on digital watches or electronic calculators anymore. The same for ultra 3P laptops. But good prices is what competition is all about. And we will need FOSS because this concept is also not good to proprietary software producers. An XO costs less than Vista retail.


Sorry. When I said smaller and lower resolution screen, I meant on the devices that offer internet access but are closer to appliances than full fledged computers. I'm referring to things like the iPhone and Nokia N800 here.

If you dumb down the "performance" criterion so that every single computer meets it, it is pointless to include in the list. If you just want to editorialize the equivalent of "performance does not really matter", well, some will disagree.

Well, it depends upon what you mean by performance. I will admit that the default Sugar environment is not very good when it comes down to performance. Slow application launch times. Sluggish rendering of web pages. Oh, and sometimes the system just grids to a halt. Not good by most measures.

On the other hand: the XO with a light weight environment, may that be a desktop manager like Xfce or a window manager like blackbox, and Opera fares fairly well. Launch time of binary executables is fine. So much RAM has been freed, that I have not seen the system freeze since tweaking the system. In other words, good performance on identical hardware.

That is not to say that the performance is acceptable for everything. You probably wouldn't want to compress video on an XO since the processor is too slow. Likewise you probably wouldn't want to edit large photographs, since you don't have enough RAM. But for writing, the web, and email, it is mostly fine.

Congratulations on rewriting the article to include Portability.
While you may consider it a 'given', I'd see it more as the pivotal point for 4P devices.

Power is relative. You either have enough or you dont. You either buy it or you generate it.

Performance is also relative. My old 486SX laptop ran Windows 3.1 very nicely.

Price is an interesting one. Is $100 too expensive for a laptop? Depends on how much you earn I'd guess.

Portability for me is all to do with size. I've made do with three inch screens on PDAs and they don't cut the mustard. I've tried to carry around laptops with 12 inch screens and its too bulky to be unobtrusive.
The 7 inch screen seems to be a trade off between usability and portability. Maybe the new Eee 900 with a nine inch screen will be the ideal.

I'm really waiting for the roll-out or fold out screen so a three inch device can use a nine inch screen. Then we're into new dimensions.

I'm still waiting for my OLPC - I'd ordered it via a friend in Canada. It finally got to her on friday - and she's coming to the UK at the end of the month...
Yes, it has been bought rather as a gimmick. It probably won't be my main PC. I've already got a laptop (not too heavy, it's a tablet), and a PC.

It's shame, I think, that there's no "p" word for the way in which they're designed to be used. What's really interesting to me isn't the hardware on the OLPC, interesting though it is; it's the way they've really tried to get the ideas of Contructionism into the operating system. The getting children to work together, which is something we're doing more and more in the West, and, from what I've seen often children in the majority world are much better at; as they're used to working as part of a community to get a job done. I guess "participatory" could be one word, but I think that a constructist approach to education is much more than just "particpatory". I just don't know what word to use!

Nice analysis, Wayan. Good luck on your meeting in San Francisco. I wish I could attend but I'll be in South America.

(p.s. the Everex link doesn't work)

Thanks Bob. The Everex link should work now too.

Wayan, I like the monicker and I plan to steal it... (with attribution of course). However, there are a number of generalizations about the "developing world" I find just a bit too much.

1. Power: "grid electricity is rare" as long as you talk about rural areas. In Latin America, it means talking about a minority of the population, since most of the countries are urban. Peru has 76% of homes covered with grid electricity (second lowest in South America) with most of the deficit in rural areas, but Uruguay has a 97% coverage, according to 2003 figures. At least in Peru, the numbers have gone up.

2. Time: "In addition, many cultures measure time in days or even seasons," which is perhaps true, in my country, for those communities living under little external influence in the Amazon jungle, but as any anthropologist with field experience will tell you, it is not the case in rural areas of Peru anymore, or for that matter, in the rest of the region. While there may be a significant number of communities sharing such an understanding of time, the majority of the population does not.

I don't want to nitpick on your assertions, but I feel that stating broadly about "developing world" as if it were just a gigantic bowl of similarness (if you allow for the neologism). You mention the emerging middle classes, and most certainly, and only talking about Peru, there is an increase of computer sales recently courtesy of the very good economic times we're living through right now. A full standard desktop computer is available for something less of 400 USD, tax included, and the vendor throws a courtesy copy of Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2007 into it. For the same price, you can get Ubuntu with in some big stores (the ones that cannot bundle you a courtesy Microsoft package). But not necessarily portable computers, which are seen as more fragile and as a thief's magnet. I guess this is going on everywhere in world, but mostly in urban areas where electricity is fine and time is measured in New York minutes.


You bring up a good point. In my writings above, I was thinking in an Africa context, which is a subtle bias in many people's conceptualization of "developing world". And while my stance would be extreme for urban Peru, I still think the two points you raise are applicable:

1. Grid Power - you may have it, but how often are brownouts? Do you need a UPS or back-up generator for continual electronics usage? Is that back-up power relatively expensive? Then the power requirements are still valid if a little less stringent.

2. Cultural Speed - yes, urban Peru is moving quicker every day, but is it at American speeds? Do you feel that Lima knows what a "New York Minute" is? And can work on that time scale? I think there is still a lower expectation of speed, which I often wish NYC itself would embrace.

Overall, my definition is to adjust the North American mindset to the reality that not everyone wants or needs the CPU-melting and battery exploding performance that computer manufactures have been pushing. Let's stop thinking that only more Mhz is better and start thinking optimization - "niche" markets with billions in demand.

Wayan, interesting counterpoints:

1. grid electricity: brownouts used to be a serious problem in Lima but not anymore. I don't deny that in rural areas and some small cities it may still be a concern. However, increased consumption should bring more investment, at least in middle to large towns; that's our government's goal for 2011 (90% penetration). I don't know the details about Uruguay (nor have been there to get some sort of impression) but I assume it may be comparable to Argentina, where utilities have suffered from underinvestment in the last decade but are still pretty decent.

2. cultural speed: in some quarters, the only thing stopping us living in New York time is infrastructure: the lousy public transportation and the heavy problems with roads. These are the most "upgraded", connected parts of society, a tiny minority. But there is also very little left of a "seasonal" time left in Peru beyond specific rural areas. Media, for instance, has changed perceptions of time a lot, since in many places, including Arahuay, kids set the schedules around TV shows: this may well be going against parents' practices based on agricultural production.

3. There's an issue that in many parts of Latin America is closer to Africa than to the developed world: crime. While it may not be as serious as in places like South Africa everywhere in the region, you can to consider that carjackings, armed robberies, kidnappings and general violent crime with very little if any regards to the lives of the robbed is common in many places in Latin America, including Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, most of Central America besides Costa Rica, and Mexico. I do think it is a serious potential harm to our potential for development, though I agree that it may not have that much to do with 4P computing.

Netbooks now has the spotlight in the computing scene. Based on its high market demand and excellent sales record, it is no wonder that this new category of PC is on its prowl.