Intel Atom Processor: Disruptive Innovation in Energy-Efficient Computing

Power. That’s the real problem for information and communication technologies (ICT) in the developing world. Specifically, electrical power, and the lack there of. All the coolest ICT tools, from radio to computers, the very Internet itself, require electricity, and usually vast amounts of it.

solar power in Africa
$10 per Watt in Africa

Yet in the developing world, electricity is very rare and expensive. National electrical grids don’t extend past the national capitol or major trading city. Outside of population centers, electricity is generated by local, even personal generators.
Often noisy, polluting, diesel or petrol generators that need constant repair, or very expensive and delicate solar panels that break or disappear overnight. Either way, electrical infrastructure costs usually exceeded the ICT investment, often by 2-3 times.
These two opposing forces collided during the 2000’s, as the international development industry, local governments, and communities themselves tried to bring ICT to rural and underserved areas, with disastrous results.
Untold millions of dollars, man-hours, and even computers were lost in these ICT for development (ICT4D) projects when energy sucking computers starved themselves and their hosts, as they gorged on rare, expensive electrons.
We would still be wasting silicon and staff today, if it were not for one, very small invention that has literally revolutionized an industry: the Intel Atom processor.
Atom CPU: Disruptive ICT4D Innovation
In 2008, partly in response to the hype around One Laptop Per Child, Intel announced the Atom series of processors. Here was a processor that had enough power – 1.6 GHz clock speed – to do most applications that users deemed necessary.

Intel Atom motherboard

It also was very energy efficient – 2.5 Watts – and Intel sold them at very cheap prices to computer manufactures.
The power envelop in such a cheap and energy-efficient package was truly a disruptive new-market innovation that has shifted the ICT demand curve.
New-Market Innovation
Clayton Christensen, the originator of the disruptive innovation concept, says that “new-market” disruptive innovation is when non-consumers – consumers who would not have used the products already on the market – are now able to consume.
In the information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) field, we’ve been using a number of different solutions to try and bridge the gap between high-powered computers and the low-resource environments we want them to work in.
We’ve tried everything from only using older, lower performance technology like AMD Geode-powered computers, to reducing the number of computers involved to match the amount of electricity a community can support.
But these were only stopgap measures. Every day the grid-powered world got better, faster technology and everyone else got farther and father behind. We, and the communities we served, were non-consumers of the faster, better technology.
Our clients could not afford the infrastructure for modern computing or had to travel great distance and expense to use it in major cities.

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Making ICT4D Affordable
With its low price, and low power consumption, the Atom was doubly affordable in ICT4D applications. We could move from non-consumers to immediate, large-scale consumption of modern information and communication technologies.
The Atom’s lower processor price meant that the end computing product, be it a netbook or desktop PC, would have a lower retail price. In fact, quality netbooks can now be had for $400 – less than half the cost of the cheapest laptops just 3 years ago. But these savings, while significant in isolation, pale in comparison to the power-cost savings.
The real disruptive innovation is the Atom processors power profile. The chipset is so energy-efficient, Inveneo could develop computing solutions that draw less than 20 Watts – the output of a battery – and free ourselves from direct generator power or large solar panel arrays. This drastically reduced the electrical costs of computer deployment, making ICT even more affordable.
A typical desktop computer can consume 200 Watts of electricity in normal operation. In Africa, where a solar power installation costs an average of $10-15 per Watt, that’s $2000+ just for the power infrastructure for one computer. An Atom-powered desktop can use just 17 Watts, requiring only a $170 solar power investment – 1/10th the cost of comparable computing systems.
In fact, with Atom-based computing, the total cost of computer ownership drops below free. As we calculated above, even donated traditional computers actually cost at least $2,000 – their electrical infrastructure cost – while a new Atom-based computer and is power infrastructure is less than $1,500.

Inveneo Computing Station

Significant Market Impact
At Inveneo, we’ve switched to an all-Atom product lineup and our sales have jumped. We’re seeing double-digit growth in our equipment sales. Our Computing Station performance meets the needs of our clients at a fraction of the absolute and total cost of traditional computers – even donated ones.
And we are not alone. Almost everyone else in the ICT4D space is all-Atom all the time as well, and from what I hear, also experiencing a noticeable uptick in product sales and project sustainability.
The Atom chipset also spawed the netbook, which has opened up computer sales to two new buyers:

  1. Urban elites in Africa and South Asia who can now afford a laptop for themselves and their families
  2. Mobile phone companies like Safaricom, who are selling subsidized netbooks to increase data network sales

In addition to the developed world buyers, they’ve helped drive netbook sales to $11 billion in 2009 – over 20% of the entire mobile computing market from 0 in 2007.
So for all of us in ICT4D, I’d like to thank Intel for the disruptive Atom processor innovation. Its a bright spot for an otherwise cut-throat hardware industry that often ignores ICT4D needs.

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4P Computing Device Survey for infoDev

Back before there was One Laptop Per Child and the 4P Computers it spawned, we had to hunt for information on ICT projects. Finding low-cost devices or the initiatives behind them was a challenge only solved by infoDev‘s comprehensive Quick Guide to low-cost computing devices for the developing world.
I can remember pushing to get the Geekcorps’ Desert PC listed, and the pride I had in our entry. Flash forward five years, and I’m now tasked with updating this list. Time has changed more than my involvement with ICT, its also changed the entire ICT field. Now, new 4P Computing devices are coming on line every day.
Yet so are great data gathering tools, like this Google Docs form below. Please let me know what’s your favorite ICT device via this simple interface:




And be sure to spread the word far and wide via email, Twitter, and the like. You can even re-tweet the survey using this handy, short snippet:

Help update @infoDev’s Quick Guide to low-cost ICT devices – please RT and add your favorite 4PC today! http://bit.ly/ict_device_survey
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Dual Mode Display Upgrade for 4P Computing

Mary Lou Jepsen of Pixel Qi has a stunning gift for 4P Computing this Christmas. In December she will start production on the 3qi, a revolutionary new display technology just for 10-inch netbooks.

going to Africa
Mary Lou & her new 3qi screen

Imagine reading a computer screen in bright African daylight that has 3x better resolution that what you’re looking at right now. A screen that reflects light, just like paper, with similar high contrast and ease on the eyes. And when in that reflective mode, adds over an hour to your netbook battery life.
This is the promise of Pixel Qi’s new dual mode 10-inch netbook display, the 3qi.
Based on the OLPC XO-1 dual mode screen, the 3qi can go from full color to black and white reflective mode at the flip of a switch. In that reflective mode, the laptop screen’s back light is turned off, which greatly reduces power consumption and in the case of 3qi, greatly increases resolution and therefore readability. Here’s a comparison with other screens.
In a recent interview with Mary Lou Jepsen, she revealed that the 3qi screens are going into production in December. This means we should be seeing dual screen laptops for sale in early 2010. But she also said that 3qi screens can be retrofitted into standard 10-inch netbooks that use 40 pin LDDS connectors in about 10 minutes.
While Pixel Qi isn’t set up to sell individual screens, she was intrigued by the idea of a distributor selling just the screens, which could herald a flourishing of hardware retrofitting. That HP Mini which you now shield from any glare? Imagine a 10 minute retrofit that gives you full daylight readability.
This is the Pixel Qi promise I can’t wait to be fulfilled.

Innovative 4P Income Streams in Abuja, Nigeria

Today I went to the Wuse Market in Abuja, Nigeria to check on the ability of entrepreneurs to find business opportunities using 4P Computing platforms. I found an innovative mix of using computing power to enable mobile phone content, at a profit.
Young men who invested in laptops are selling music, movies, and ringtones to market visitors at a tidy markup. Now ringtones and music sales is not new. Back in 2004, I heard of techies in the wilds of Mali selling ringtones and I got a few Gig of African tunes for a few bucks at a Senegalese cyber cafe.
What I found innovative was the movie sales.

going to Africa
Making money from movies in Nigeria

The entrepreneurs had a selection of movies, or you could buy your own VCD or DVD and have them convert it into a video file. But why pay to convert a VCD or DVD? Wouldn’t you already have a compact disk player, or if you’re wanting to convert to a file, your own computer?
It seems people do have their own computer on which they want to watch movies, but this computer cannot convert them from VCD or DVD to .avi or .mp4, as its a mobile phone. Yes, people pay to convert VCD’s and DVD’s into files watchable on a smartphone.
Charles, the young techie I spoke with, said he makes around 4,000 Naira a day in profit with his laptop, or about $20 of ringtones, movies, and music. At that rate, he’s looking at about a 4 month payback period on the laptop purchase. Maybe a month more if you take in his anti-virus expenses – software and every other day software update and laptop cleaning at a cyber cafe.
Still, a quick way to pay for a new laptop.

HP Mini Note: 4P Computing Perfection

Recently, the famed technology writer Steven Levy submitted his gadget list for 2009. His second request? One Laptop Per Adult Computer:

I was skeptical about the XO at first but was pleasantly surprised by its ruggedness, screen quality, antenna sensitivity, and software, which treats every app as an invitation to collaborate. Yes, it’s great that OLPC wants to sell these in bulk to kids in developing nations, but I’d like to see a consumer company license its innovations to make an adult-safe version (with a real keyboard) for the price of an iPod classic.

Now doesn’t that sound like he’s really asking for a 4P Computer? A highly portable, power -efficient, appropriate performance laptop with a reasonable price? I would like to present Steven with his perfect 4PC now. May I introduce the HP Mini Note Netbook. This is the 4P Computing category killer we have all been waiting for. Recently, I bought one as an adult XO experience, and I’m quite impressed.

  1. The 1035NR version has the look and feel of a real laptop, just shrunk. Its case and keyboard are stylish – well past the cheap plastic feel of the Asus and approaching a Vaio.
  2. The 8Gig solid state drive, expandable with SD cards, can withstand heat, dust, and shocks better than spinning hard disks.
  3. It runs Windows XP or Ubuntu 8.10 with ease. I even have it dual booting – XP for her, Ubuntu for me.
  4. At $400 it is within the price range of business people in the developing world, and close to the XO laptop’s G1G1 price.
  5. Sadly, its 3 hour (max) battery life is nothing like the XO, and its screen is too glossy and weak for sunlight reading.

So while Steven Levy might continue waiting for the perfect adult XO, I would recommend the rest of us go with a HP Mini Note. You’ll not find a better “netbook” out there. I know, looked till the wife called out “just buy one already!”