Monday, December 7, 2009

Can Indian companies build $50 netbooks for Indian consumers?

Friends, how many among you are using netbooks? I would guess, some of you, surely! And how many of you have seen Shanzhai netbooks? Well, Shanzhai refers to Chinese imitation and pirated brands and goods, particularly electronics! Anyhow!

Why did I bring up this topic about developing a $50 netbook for Indian consumers? Recently, I had got into a conversation with Dr Satya Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Concept2Silicon Systems, and formerly, co-founder and VP Engineering and Technology at Open-Silicon, on this subject. Later, I did a little research on whether there are cheaper netbooks in China. Of course, there are!

Late September, it was reported that Shenzhen Imore ( had introduced a 10.1 inch netbook, the Webook A600, with a DVD-ROM. The specs are:
CPU Intel Atom N270 1.6G
Chipsets Intel 945GSE
Screen 10.1 inch 1024×600
Wireless 802.11b/g/n
Ports 2×USB2.0, VGA, Internet, card-reader, ear phone, mic
Battery 2600mAh
Others 1.3mp camera
Size 260mm×193mm×31mm

First, is 1GB RAM enough? I am told that it doesn’t help with performance, especially, when using Vista, instead of XP. Those who are users of netbooks should be able to throw some more light on this aspect.

Now, I need to know: Who, in India, is capable of producing $50 netbooks? It can really be a huge market, especially, if the maker(s) can come up with what the Shanzhai makers are really doing — which is, not waiting for others to tell them what to do, but make what they think will be popular among consumers!

Features in a $50 netbook
That brings me to the features that Indian users may want to see in netbooks. But first, can an Indian company try to build its own microprocessor, which is somewhat close to the Atom N270? How about using SSD, instead of HDD? What about the display — STN or TFT? What sort of applications should be supported by the netbook? All high end or simply basic apps? What about gaming features? Should a $50 netbook support high-end graphics for gaming? Should it have a DVD-ROM?

Let’s start with the basics. To improve the quality of education in India, $50 netbooks would just be the right solution! These would be simply great for digital classrooms/virtual classrooms for education; for use in rural areas in e-governance — applications such as email, web browsing and chatting, printing of forms, etc.; maybe, it could help in telemedicine too. At least, the Web camera should be able to beam live images and audio — definitely not of extremely high quality, but certainly, something that would be helpful in places that aren’t connected with medical centers. Think high-volume, low mix product family, too!

Here, I recall a statement made by BV Naidu, chairman, ISA, during the recently held conference on embedded electronics during He had said: “Our local markets should provide opportunities for the local companies. Access to global markets will help us grow.” Here’s just the perfect opportunity to roll things off!

Consider this aspect too — producing locally made netbooks could well boost the electronic components and accessories ecosystem industry in India, which is currently moderate.

During the same conference, Ittiam’s Srini Rajam gave an indication for the MIDs/netbooks opportunity — a price target of Rs 12,500, with an opportunity forecast of 2 million units per year. Can the price tag of Rs. 12,500 be brought down further? Perhaps, yes!

India is said to be the global leader in embedded design. Well, here is an opportunity for the Indian embedded developers to produce something brilliant for the country.

So, what features should a $50 netbook have? Surely, email, instant messaging and voice chat, and Web browsing, OpenOffice, perhaps, for Office applications, and some low end games. Do we need anything more than this? Gaming? Perhaps, no, but having it won’t be a bad idea either. Storing MP3 songs? Maybe, a few. If more, the better! Do we need a DVD-ROM? Let the maker (or market) take a call on that! I’d say, yes, given the Indian (and global) habit of watching movies on the notebook (or netbook).

Now to the specs for such low-end netbooks. Do we need the Intel Atom processor? Which Indian company can build an inexpensive processor to handle such applications? Will a STN LCD do? Perhaps, yes. Or, even, TFT, if the LCD modules are made available cheaper. What about the screen size? Maybe 8.2 or 10.2 inch — have your pick! And the RAM? Perhaps, 2GB, supporting XP, or Vista, if it is not hindering performance. Next, memory — 160GB or 320GB HDD, or even SSD — if these are inexpensively available. Should it have a DVD-ROM? Perhaps, yes. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity — perhaps, yes!

As they say, India is home to core competencies — from chip design to software and system design. The strong growth of the domestic market adds the vital dimension. With the right EMS strategy, the volume market can be served with world class solutions.

You know what? All of this may seem quiet fancy! However, this is probably the kind of opportunity that exists in India. Perhaps, netbook lovers may find these features and suggestions rather queer. However, think consumers, think literacy, think telemedicine, think rural areas, think simple PC applications, think local manufacturing! It may all start to make some sense!

We have ultra low-cost mobile phones. Why not ultra low-cost netbooks? The price tag of Rs. 10,000-18,000 for a netbook can be brought down to Rs. 2,000-3,000, with some local flavored innovation. What do you think?

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