A PC in Every Desk

Brazzil Magazine
Monday, 01 April 2002

Brazilian government approved last month a project for producing a cheap personal computer for the masses that could cost as low as $300. The new PCs will be going first to schools, libraries, health posts and community institutions and clubs.

By Paulo Rebêlo

Researchers from UFMG (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais—Federal University of Minas Gerais) have developed a computer prototype with a 500 MHz equivalent processor, 64 Mb RAM, an Ethernet network card, a 56k modem, 14″ monitor, sound and video cards, serial and USB ports, mouse and keyboard, that could cost as low as $300.

Despite the lack of CD-ROM, floppy and hard disk, the popular PC is focused on lower-income families who can’t afford to buy an ordinary computer. People won’t be able to save files, unless they make an upgrade, but the main role of the computer will be accessing the Internet.

The PC, however, will be primarily used in social programs from the government’s FUST (Fundo de Universalização das Telecomunicações—Fund for the Universalization of Communication), which already has a $500,000-yearly budget. The government intends to buy the first shipment of PC’s to equip schools, libraries, health posts and communities, in order to provide easy access to the Internet.

The PPC (Popular PC) was created thanks to $75,000 investment. To create the cheap machine, researchers used accessories widely available in Brazil’s market. For Roberto Begonha, head of the University’s computer science department, “the intention was to build a computer with the minimum requirements and that could be produced at a very low cost.”

The final product was supposed to be ready in April, 2001, and any company willing to support or to manufacture the PC may find all the necessary information at CG’s website: www.cg.org.br—CG (Comitê Gestor da Internet no Brasil) is the national regulator committee for the Internet in Brazil.

The software for use with the cheap PC will be ready only in May, according to CG’s officials. Since there’s no hard drive, the applications must use a 16 MB flash memory card. Of course, it won’t be a Microsoft Windows or any kind of paid software. The project will use free, public-domain software, including an Internet browser and a word processor.

Sérgio Campos, project coordinator of the PPC, explains that the secret of low costs is to “dismiss the superfluous, like hard drives, floppy and CD-ROM.” According to Campos, the PPC doesn’t have any structural difference from an ordinary computer and people may upgrade it with any components they wish.

The operating system is a Linux custom package (still in development by UFMG) with Xwindows, KDE and basic applications as a browser, word processor, spreadsheet and others. How it will fit in 16 MB, no one exactly knows. What is known, tough, is that users will be encouraged to use the Internet for all their needs: e-mail, personal documents, file storage etc. Not much different from the NetPC proposed in the US years ago.

While many believe Brazil has several more social needs than providing computers for the masses, others are categorical in supporting the initiative that could decrease the clamorous digital divide in Brazil and increase the Internet use. The program has created a partnership with state bank Caixa Econômica Federal. Thanks to this the machine may be bought in 24 installments—about $15 each month.

Some people, however, are still heavily incredulous about the popular PC. For them, it’s just a waste of public money and another way for a few companies to benefit from the government money. Only time will say.

Uniform Time

Soon, the Internet in Brazil may receive a heavy increase in e-commerce and net sales. In a CG’s promising initiative, all national servers and providers could adopt a unique time zone for exchanging and trading information, such as commercial transactions, forms and ordinary data.

The idea is to create a default work time for ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) in order to facilitate the e-commerce penetration and, at the same time, avoid security problems. As soon as the system gets ready, the Comitê Gestor intends to invest in a public campaign and there’ll be a list with all the ISPs who adopt the new protocol.

A Stratum 1 server is already installed at the National Observatory in Rio de Janeiro. The Stratum 1, which uses atomic time, allows the national server clocks over the Internet to be adjusted in a unique zone.

According to CG’s officials, either ISPs or net users won’t have to pay anything for the changes. Also, users aren’t supposed to notice the difference while browsing the Web or working with the Internet, since the changes would be made internally only, not affecting users behavior because only secure servers—mostly e-commerce—would be allowed to “understand” and communicate between each other using the specific time zone.

International Alliance

After the free-fall of many American and European dotcom companies, Brazil’s time has come. Several Brazilian dotcoms started firing its employees, especially Globo.com, which fired more than half of its staff. Globo.com is the Internet arm of Globo TV, Brazilian largest TV network and the fourth largest in the world right after ABC, CBS and NBC.

Things seem a little greener at UOL’s garden. Universo Online (aka UOL) is the biggest ISP in Brazil and Latin America, with more than 900.000 subscribers who pay for its services and content. UOL (www.uol.com.br) has made a deal with PT Multimídia (aka PTM), an arm of Portugal Telecom, which includes a possible incorporation of Zip.Net (www.zip.net), which is controlled by PTM. Zip.Net was born in 1998 from a free e-mail initiative in Brazil and the whole portal was sold in February/2000 to the Portuguese for $365 million.

The fusion between UOL and Zip.Net is yet to be decided and, until now, no one has been dismissed. According to UOL’s officials, only time—and the market—will say if both portals will continue to act independently or not.