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I don't know you, but I'm willing to bet that you own some sort of computer, whether it's a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. (If not, how are you even reading this? Just hanging out at the public library?) I'm also willing to bet you take their ubiquity for granted. I sure do, and they're how I make a living.
In the rest of the world, though, they're not quite so ubiquitous. Of the 7 billion people on the planet, only about 15 percent actually own a computer. So what if there were a way to provide those billions with affordable access to PCs? How many businesses could you help? How many lives could you change?
A new Kickstarter-backed project believes it can help make that happen. Endless is an affordable, stylish personal computer with a simple, smartphone-style operating system. Crucially, it comes with an HDMI cable, so owners can use their TV as a monitor.
Inspiration for the idea came to Endless CEO Matt Dalio when he was traveling through India and realized that while most households lacked a computer, they did have a television. Why not use it as a monitor for a low-cost PC?
Endless has another nifty feature that's especially important in the developing world: it's fully functional even without an internet connection.
Included are a host of apps, including a full encyclopedia, educational lectures, health info, recipes, and more than 100 other options. "We went into the field and into people's homes, sat on their couches and floors and asked them every question we could in order to understand how technology could change their lives," Endless explains on its Kickstarter page.
The PC itself is based around an Intel Celeron processor and 2GB of RAM, and comes with either 32GB of flash memory or a 500GB hard drive. Pricing starts at a mere $169, and rises to $229 with the 500GB option, which also includes WiFi, Bluetooth, and an integrated speaker.
The Kickstarter campaign raised $176,538 from 1,041 backers, and Endless expects to start shipping computers later this month. The Kickstarter launch was designed to draw attention to the project in developed markets, in order to help extend its reach to the developing world.
All in all, it's a nice idea, but hardly a new one. Endless follows on the heels of other initiatives like the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project and low-cost computers like the Raspberry Pi—many of which are even more affordable than Endless PCs. And personally, I can't help but feel suspicious of consumer products that masquerade as philanthropy.
I'm not questioning Dalio's motives, but tech entrepreneurs have a tendency to get wrapped up in solutionism, attempting to solve "problems" that don't really need to be solved. HBO's Silicon Valley brilliantly skewered the trend during its first season:
It's impossible to overstate the role computers have played in shaping the past few decades, but in developing nations they're still far less important than access to food, water, and shelter. The ability to create a Facebook account or log into WebMD is great, but you need to take care of the basics first.
Bill Gates, perhaps the most widely respected philanthropist on Earth, has warned against this tendency to take "what we do in the rich world and [subsidize] its use in the developing world."
"Doing that kind of elevates technology as though it's the end goal, whereas we're just trying to meet human needs," he added, in a 2006 speech. "So it's not starting in the right place."
That's not to suggest Endless won't find buyers in developing markets; it's simply to say that not all developing markets are the same, and not everyone necessarily has need for a PC.
In fact, Endless may find a more viable audience right here in the U.S. Chromebooks and low-cost Windows tablets have been making headway in a market otherwise devoted to high-end performance, so a basic, offline-ready desktop that checks in under $200 could have real appeal. Not to mention, American buyers are far more likely to own a digital TV than those in the developing world.