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Would you work with thin client instead of a regular PC? Earlier this year, Bharti Airtel launched a thin client called Airtel Net PC, which gives users 10 GB of remote data storage from Nivio, and interestingly, uses Microsoft Windows XP as its OS instead of an open source OS. The product is available for Rs. 7999 to Airtel customers, and though Airtel doesn’t provide connectivity in my part of Delhi, I did get to try the thin client out at their office in Connought Place.

Devices like the Nivio powered thin client are of particular interest to us, since they help overcome one of the key issues associated with computing in India – the cost of the PC and associated software as a barrier to entry. To address that issue, Emergic Ventures and NEA funded Novatium also launched Nova Net PC with MTNL and BSNL (hence covering a large amount of the existing landline userbase). At India Telecom last year, Qualcomm also showcased Kayak, a low cost PC which uses Opera for powering basic Internet access services.

nivio-companionI think there are two key questions facing the low cost computing segment today (and maybe netbooks as well), which form a part of their pricing mix:

— How limited does one make computing capability, in terms of hardware, in order to lower the cost of the device
— How does the lowering of computing capability and experience impact my target userbase

Some thoughts on the Airtel Net PC and the decisions they’ve taken regarding the device:

Remote Connectivity and Storage Capacity: The Airtel Net PC is a thin client, with no data storage included with the device. This effectively reduces the cost of storage, though users can connect a USB device to the portable device that comes with the connection. While users get only 10 GB of storage, they can also buy more space at Rs. 99 for each 5GB of additional storage (screencap). The data is stored remotely on Nivio’s servers, and hence the thin client needs Internet connectivity in order to access the data. This means that if the connection goes down, so does ones access to data.

Software Choices: The thin client runs Microsoft Windows XP, and I was rather surprised that they didn’t opt for a less expensive option of running Ubuntu, which might have helped lower the cost of ownership for users. Perhaps the market they’re targeting prefers Microsoft software, or like most of us, is used to it. One advantage of remotely hosting the service is that one doesn’t require software maintenance and upgradation. However, it also means that a users software choices are limited, and they can only install software available in the Nivio Shop and Application Marketplace.

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One interestion option, that I particularly liked, is the ability to rent software, via a marketplace that comes with the Net PC: for example, Microsoft Office Publisher 2007 costs Rs. 270 per month to a user. The Application shop also includes open source options like Open Office. Oddly enough, with only 10GB storage available to a user, they also have iTunes.

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Online Services: The service can also allow users to access their desktop remotely, from the Internet, since the data is stored remotely, on a server. Additionally, users can use a service called Nivio Live, for sharing content. Most of the screencaps in this story were taken on the Airtel NetPC, and then shared with me, using Nivio Live. They have some issues to figure out, since most of the screenshots shared through Nivio Live weren’t downloadable, and they have to be emailed over.

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Connectivity: is over and above the Rs. 7999, and users will have to buy connectivity, unless they have connectivity of their own: a 3GB data tranfer “Home Pack” at 256kbps for Rs. Rs. 699/month, alongwith MS Office; higher cost versions – “Professional Pack” at Rs. 899/per month and “Business Pack” at Rs. 1199 per month offer additional variations of MS Office, Online Desktop (giving users the ability to access the desktop from anywhere).

Our Take:

I’m a little skeptical of the entire thin client segment from a consumer perspective because it doesn’t really allow for growth and discovery of new software, new services – one of the joys of playing around with a computer. For an experienced user, this is a significantly limited experience, and hence the service really shouldn’t target experienced users. The lack of a CD/DVD drive for multimedia content is also a drawback. Then again, I was initially skeptical about netbooks as well, but now see the benefit, given longer battery life and portability.

We think the primary target base for the Airtel Net PC will be Small and Medium businesses who would seek to reduce the cost of owning additional computers, and use the devices for basic office work.