Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Martha Lane Fox and the 98 pound pc

News that the UK is to try to get the last nine million or so internet refusniks online by offering them recycled pc's running ubuntu for ninety eight pounds a pop.

Good luck. Reusing recycled pc's is a good option - it worked sucessfully at York university where the students set up a scheme to resell ex university machines to needy students. That worked well because he machines were all very standard corporate machines using standard motherboards, network cards and the like and were on the whole the product of a single manufacturer - meaning that there was always a supply of spares to replace dead hard drives, mother boards, network cards, monitors and the rest. The other thing is that while perfectly usable, especially when coupled with Linux, older machines are worth zilch second hand as they often lack the power to run more modern operating systems, eg windows 7.

As I proved to myself with the $83 machine and ppc imac of blessed memory is that older hardware is surprisingly useful.

So you would think I would be cheering this innovation. I'm not. I think it's a great scheme, but there's a slew of problems that need to be addressed:
  • older hardware is less reliable than newer hardware. Simple fact of life. It's one thing for me, who allegedly knows about this stuff to spend a thursday evening replacing a dead video card and installing the drivers for fun, another to do this commercially - and it will be a commercial service as most people either don't know or don't want to do this.
  • maintenance provision requires standardisation. Believe me I know, I've run a hardware support service. Unless you control the specification of the hardware closely you end up with a nightmare and supporting several different video cards, motherboards, monitors etc. You need to ensure that you have a very small choice of components so that anything replaced is identical with what was there - plug'n'go 10 minute maintainance
  • Operating and system maintenance. - Don't do it. People install weird things and do stupid things. (I know of a computer centre director who, in the days of dos, deleted io.sys and command.com as they didn't appear to do anything useful). If you must - offer an option to reset to a standard configuration from a recovery cd
  • You need to decide first up what to do about network provision and support - internet services cost money, and it's no use doing cheap hardware if people can't afford an adsl service. Equally you've got be assured that the network service is reliable
So how would I do it?
  • Do a deal with microsoft, google or whoever to provide people with an email account and a few GB of online storage out of the box
  • Do a deal to provide a cheap basic adsl service with again a few GB monthly allowance in the box
  • Get my sums right - work out if by buying cheap new hardware I can get my support costs down so that the TCO is less than using recycled hardware with higher support costs. UK universities managed to do this with pc maintenance getting it down to a few percent of the cost of the machine
  • Bundle linux, but provide people an option of an ookygoo interface if they want, automatic backup scripts, and perhaps access to service like Google Docs or Office Live
  • Make it cheap over three years. Ninety eight pounds is a great price point but it's no so great if you end up having to add the cost of internet, maintenance etc. Ten quid a month all in for three years is probably a better deal.
  • Make the service easy to use - and this is where cloud based services are good, especially when combined with automatic backup of the users data. That way you can probably get away with offering a swap out rather than a repair service
  • Offer an option for a second data backup disk in the box for heavy users. That way if the hard drive dies they have a backup, and all you need to do is move the drive across. People care about their data, not their machines.
  • Be prepared for people to call you rude names. You won't get everything right and they will. Providing a decent empowered helpdesk system is worth it. That way people have confidence that even if/when you stuff up, you will fix the problem for them

1 comment:

Arthur said...

Sadly, people don't care about their data. Not until they lose it. They won't pay extra for that second drive.

Also most people want laptops these days, for space as much as anything, which precludes two drives.