At the same time, a number of other things have come into the picture to make the $300 notebook that much more feasible:
1) The broader acceptance of free and open-source software. ASUS was able to shave quite a bit off the price of each Eee PC by loading it with the Linux operating system and open-source software (such as OpenOffice) that costs them almost nothing to provide. Windows licenses are not cheap, and most PC makers attempt to offset the cost of Windows by, again, offering add-ons.
2) Cheaper solid-state storage, which is speedy and enhances battery life. Flash memory has finally fallen to prices where the amount of space youd need for an actual notebook PC (4-8GB) is affordable. The 2GB card I bought for my camera the other month cost a mere $15; I imagine the prices are much cheaper for manufacturers buying in bulk.
3) Other cost-cutting measures that dont affect quality as broadly. VIAs own NanoBook uses not only VIAs own C7-M processor, but VIAs North and South Bridge chipsets, their audio components, and their portable graphics subsystem. They build enough of the pieces themselves; why not use them together?
4) Public pressure. Now that people see something like the OLPC is possible, they wonder why something like that cant be offered in a more commercial vein as well. The XOGiving site indicates that you can send one laptop to someone for $200, which means $300 isnt an impossible target to aim for.
I wonder, however, if the fact that all of this has emerged now is reflective of the bucking of a long-time trend. For too long, the economics of the industry have rewarded companies who stay current with technology rather than providing truly affordable computing power. A couple of years back I wrote a column for PC Today where I lamented the gigaflops-and-gigahertz-at-any-cost mentality. Weve been trying to make things faster and more powerful, and in doing so neglected whole classes of folks who didnt need faster or more powerful. They needed something that worked, with nothing fancyalthough I admit that depended on your definition of fancy. For example, these days wireless could be considered strongly required and not a frill.
Providing what just works, rather than staying with whats current, has at least some precedent elsewhere. Consider Japans Mujirushi, a chain store with a house brand that embraces unpretentious simplicity as a cost-cutting measure. They were profiled recently in Slate, and the article described how their frugality worked in their favor as a brand unto itself. They sell U-shaped spaghettipasta without the ends trimmed, as they normally are during manufacturingand potato chips that may look weird but are at least as tasty as the real thing.
Theres a lesson here. Im now looking forward not to whatever Apple has up its sleeve for the next generation of the iPhonewhich is guaranteed to be overpriced and vendor-locked, anywaybut machines that are cheap, simple and casually nondescript, and still do everything you need. Its hard to see how that can go wrong.