Hardware

The cost of computers

The high price tag for computers

This is an important issue for technology today. Computers are still not for everyone.

In a historical agreement made in a meeting lasting between 9 and 13 December 1996, Ministers from 128 nations have agreed to free commerce in information technology by scrapping tariffs in the rapidly growing $US600 billion world market in computer-related goods (1). This means that the price of many electronic consumer goods, including computers, will be much lower.

However, in practice, the situation is a little different at point-of-sale. Apparently, the great marketing drive (yes, another one!) among computer manufacturers nowadays is to stop selling technology that has come down in price and/or is only a couple of years old. Then they sell the latest machines with newer and/or more features at a price which is no different from the original old machines when they first came out onto the market.

So while new computers are still high-priced, the only people who will benefit from all of this are those selling the very latest technology to anyone who can afford it (while consumers continue to perceive the technology as good quality at a reasonable price), and those delivering IT services using these machines to anyone who needs them (e.g. government oursourcing contracts etc).

The social consequences of high-priced computers and other IT products

Andrew Funston, an Australian social researcher, has investigated some of the social consequences of high-priced IT technology like computers. In his report titled Investigating Gaps and Opportunities: Young People's Access to IT in Australia, it was found that school children from poorer families, who were female, who attended Government schools as opposed to the better funded Catholic schools, or attending small schools in remote or rural areas or an area of low-income, were less likely to use computers and/or get online. Even the presence of so-called free Internet-access computers in certain libraries or those available at cybercafes did not help to close the gap because they either charged on an hourly rate, had restricted hours, or tended to be located in areas not suited to the disadvantaged.

Funston, who combed through the data already collected by agencies like the Australian Bureau of Statistics and had conducted personal surveys with small groups of young people aged 12 to 24 for the Foundation for Young Australians, learnt that it was important for everyone, in particular the disadvantaged, to have free access to computers and the Internet, including after-hours use to ensure people maintain a social network, access online government services and to help them get a job.

As Funston said:

"There is a digital divide between information "haves" and "have-nots" and it's getting worse and it's based more on class lines and less on regionality." (2)

However, as one young disadvantaged teenager has stated to a Canberra Times reporter, the greatest priority is ensuring people have a roof over their heads and one that is stable before they can tackle the problem of accessing computers and the Internet.

Start keeping costs down in the IT industry

The high costs for the latest computer technology is clearly favouring the corporate sector and those technically-minded and rich people in the IT industry. If we want to avoid increasing the gap between the technological (or information) haves and have-nots of this world while still promoting innovation and openness in society, it is important to keep costs down in the IT industry.

Perhaps as a courtesy to all the disadvantaged people around the world, computer and software manufacturers should consider reselling an older version of one of their popular IT products to the masses at a special discount price.

For example, the reintroduction of the popular Macintosh 500c laptop could be made very compact, durable and extremely cheap using their smaller and easier-to-make colour LCD screens and now common components. If sold for A$200 each together with an additional rebate from the Federal Government to help further lower the costs for the disadvantaged who want to learn and achieve something useful in society, then there is no reason why the gap between rich and poor should widen.

As for the information to help educate the disadvantaged, an effort should be made to centralise the core knowledge onto a single and freely accessible web site so that anyone who needs the knowledge to do a particular job or have greater personal development can do so from this web site. Then qualified teachers can refer to the site while assisting the disadvantaged in understanding the knowledge until they can go at it on their own and learn what it is they need. (3)

In fact, just such a program could see everyone enjoy the benefits of the technological revolution (if not for the potentially few more customers that could help the manufacturers long-term "profit-making" aims through the selling of other IT products, well at least to help make the manufacturers feel good that they have done something worthwhile to assist the needy people in our community).

UPDATE
8 October 2005

An excellent attempt to get children in developing nations such as Brazil, China, Egypt, Thailand and South Africa to access the educational and communication benefits of the internet is nearing completion with a low-cost, durable self-reliant power source laptop for the masses. The laptop is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His non-profit organisation One Laptop Per Child expects to produce 15 million of these laptops.

The machines will come with a hand crank when there's no electricity. The cost is US$100 (A$131). They will be distributed in 2006 to needy children.