The PAYG Laptop?

You write one article about Appliance Computing and the following morning this BBC story pops up – Laptop Launched to aid computer novices’.  The ‘Alex’, a Linux based laptop, is aimed at people who’re occasional computer users and comes with an Office suite, mail, browser, broadband connection and a monthly fee.  In other words, a PAYG laptop.  There’s nothing new about this; a number of Mobile Phone Companies offer mobile broadband access packages that include a Windows laptop, and in the recent past there have been a few occasions when companies have attempted to launch similar schemes, sometimes backed with advertising.

I say attempted, because they’ve tended not to work, and I’m not at all convinced that this one will be any more succesful.  The company’s website describes the package available here,and to be honest it does seem rather over-priced for what is a modified and stripped down Ubuntu distro.  And one that seems to only work when your broadband connection is running.  It’s a good business model provided that you can get people to buy in to it.  There’s a review of the package to be read here.

Now, first question – who is the market place?  The Broadband company who’ve developed this package claim that almost 25% of people in the UK with computers don’t know how to use it.  really?  That I find difficult to believe.  Most folks I know – across the board, non-techies, techies, old, young, whatever are quite au fait with using their computer to do what they want to do.  There may be aspects of computing that they don’t get, in the same way that I don’t ‘get’ iTunes, for example, or the intricacies of computer or video gaming, but I know no-one who’s bought a computer who doesn’t make some use of it.  Perhaps that 25% didn’t really want a computer, or have ended up with one totally unsuitable for them?

If the market sector is this 25%, then what proportion are willing to buy a £400 computer and a £10 access fee?  Apparently a ‘sofwtare only’ option that can be installed on older computers and that will simply cost you the monthly fee is out in the next couple of months, which might allow people with older computers to make use of them.  the package comes with 10Gb online storage; does this mean that local storage is not available?  If so, what happens to your data if you don’t pay your monthly fee or cancel your subscription?  To be honest, that sounds like something of a lock-in akin to Google Docs.  According to this review, on stopping the subscription, the PC effectively ‘expires’ – along with the access to your data.

I’m afraid that from what I can see I’m not impressed with either the environment or the limitations offered.  One of teh things that you learn after a while in putting together user interfaces is that people who come in knowing nothing soon gather skills and in some cases start finding the ‘simple interface’ that originally attracted them to be a limitation.  With a standrad PC, you just start using more advanced programs and facilities; with something like the Alex you’re stuck with what you’re given.  And whilst you could just buy a PC, and ask someone to set it up ‘simple’ for you (to be honest, it isn’t THAT difficult with a Windows PC, Mac or Linux machine if you ask about) and use a more ‘mainstream’ machine, you’re still stuck with your data being locked in to the Alex environment.

The solution to this problem is perhaps to look at front ends that sit on existing platforms, rather than work to further facilitate the move towards a computer appliance future split between a large number of manufacturers who lock us in to proprietary data stores.

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