Continuing a thread I started last week in my post “ten dollar computer”. Or, to be more precise, providing some historical resonance on the subject…

The velocipede was invented as a toy for the rich. Back in 1867 you needed real money to get your hands on one of these new-fangled luxury items, and so it became a mark of distinction among fashionable young gentlemen to have one. Possession of such a vehicle was a way to distinguish oneself from the riff-raff of the unmoneyed classes.

In the time that has passed from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty first century, modern manufacturing techniques have allowed such elitism to be democratized. Millions of people can partake in the game of purchasing a somewhat overpriced doo-dad, the possession of which qualifies one as a member of the “in” crowd.

The latest such doo-dad is the Apple iPad. Fully loaded, it can cost you almost $1000. This pricing is within reach of many consumers in some parts of the world, including the U.S. and Western Europe, but is hopelessly out of reach for most of the world’s population. In effect, the high priced consumer item is essentially elitism gone global.

This is not to say that a device with such a form factor need be inherently expensive. As I mentioned last week, there are computers in the marketplaces of Mumbai that you can buy for around $10. It is already clear that if you don’t need the fancy graphics, and other bells and whistles, a hand-held slate device could be sold for almost two orders of magnitude less than the price of an iPad.

Rather than maximize performance and cachet, the $10 computer emphasizes low cost and wide availability.

The time is right to be tracking such things, because the rise of the easy-to-use slate device marks a sea change in the use of computer-enabled information appliances. Apple is positioning its version of this game-changer as a status object — an expensive toy for the would-be elite.

In the long run, the invention of the velocipede led, in not all that many years, to the bicycle — the very epitome of low cost and widely available travel, economically accessible to the masses. The bicycle is now the backbone of local travel in many parts of the world where the cost of an automobile is prohibitive.

I see no reason why this new breed of consumer-friendly information appliances shouldn’t follow a similar trajectory.

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