According to this link, there are approximately 1.4 billion people in the world who regularly use the Internet. That's a staggering number, but it represents less than a quarter of the world's population. As the population recently passed something like 6.6 billion, that leaves some 5.2 billion people who don't have regular access to the Internet. And while some of that number represents people who for their own reasons don't wish to go online, I'm sure that probably the vast majority would welcome Internet access.
Having access to the Internet can be a tremendous boon. Internet access allows you to access a great many learning resources - for instance, you can easily find a tutorial and teach yourself Ruby or Python if you wish. It allows people to set up websites that people from all over the world can access, regardless of geographical location. And there's tremendous potential for business use - for instance, a company that sells craft goods in Kenya can advertise their wares to people in the UK. All in all, access to computers and the Internet can be tremendously empowering, enabling people to develop computer skills that will be of value to employers, as well as get in touch with the wider world, and allowing them to work themselves out of poverty.
There's a number of initiatives that are working to provide people with access to computers, such as OLPC and the recent announcement that Brazillian schoolchildren will be sitting down to a KDE desktop in the near future. One notable point is how much these projects are reliant on free software.
So, I was thinking today: It's great that free software such as that used in Edubuntu or the OLPC is helping children to get online. But what about getting adults online? For one thing, the children benefiting from these projects will be grown up in a few years, and for another there are plenty of people a few years older who lack access to computers or the Internet now. When these people are looking for employment, how are their employers going to get computers? And if they elect to start their own businesses, how will they get a computer? For business purposes, a computer is an invaluable tool - and it's necessary to compete in some areas.
So why doesn't someone start selling some kind of cheap and cheerful desktop PC designed for the third world? Think about it - it doesn't cost much to build a fairly basic PC, you can use older product lines that manufacturers are winding down as these are very cheap, often £15-£20 for a processor, for example. I'm sure it would be easy to build a basic PC without a screen or keyboard for less than £150, probably considerably less. Install a lightweight Linux distribution on it (I'm thinking possibly Xubuntu, or maybe creating a variant using a window manager such as IceWM or Fluxbox for more speed), and you'll get an easy-to-use computer, and access to the free software in the distro's repositories, so people can easily set up web servers, install office software or whatever they need. You could manufacture these in large quantities and sell them in developing countries (or for that matter, there's plenty of people in the first world who would benefit from them). On a larger scale, these could help to bootstrap an entire IT industry into existence in a country within a very short space of time - perhaps we could see a whole host of web startups in the third world.
Such a project has a great deal of merit. The best way to sell them would probably be as a franchise, as it would allow people to set up their own businesses, creating jobs in the process. They'd be ideal for small or even mid-sized businesses. Internet cafes could also use them as they'd be good value for money, allowing them to afford more computers and make more money. And it wouldn't even need to be a charity - I feel this is something which has a sound business model.
I'd be very surprised if this is the first time someone has thought up this idea, but I can't find anything similar online. Probably the closest thing to this that I'm aware of is the gPC, as well as some other projects I've heard of to refurbish old computers and install Linux on them then sell them on. What do you think? Could this be a good way to help breach the digital divide?