Microsoft to sell student PCs in India. A Tablet PC I presume? Nope.

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Today Microsoft announced that it will be partnering with Zenith and others to make PCs targeted to students in India, called the IQ PC. Senior Vice President of Microsoft’s Emerging Segments Market Development Group, Orlando Ayala, has a few details on his blog. On the face of it it sounds like a great idea. However, I’m perplexed by some of the details I’m reading about the program.

First, some basics. ArsTechnica is indicating that these student PCs will be desktops and will cost a little over $500 each–complete with software from Microsoft and third-parties. The idea it sounds like is to build an affordable student PC that’s appropriate for the region. Seems reasonable.

However, a desktop? And $500? A quick check of WalMart returns numerous desktops and laptops for much less. Some are in the low $300s–with a full-blown version of Vista. I assume that in this case part of the objective is to leverage local providers and the $500 cost is the best they could do. This doesn’t sound right. Maybe with import fees the lower cost PCs exceed the $500 local amount and that’s why $500 is such a good deal. That would be unfortunate. Or maybe the quoted prices are in error.

Regardless of the price, I don’t understand the idea of going with a desktop–particularly when you look at some of the specs. Supposedly the PCs will be equipped with Windows XP Starter Edition and an 800×600 display. Hmmm. Doesn’t this sound like UMPC- or Classmate PC-grade resolution? And haven’t we been reading about Classmate PCs in this price range already? So the question I have is why go for a desktop when a laptop with comparable specs could be made for the same price? And is there any doubt that in let’s say five years that laptops will be so much outselling desktops that prices and processes will be skewed towards laptops? Simply put: Desktops are going the wrong direction, in terms of space, portability, power consumption, connectivity, and flexibility.

But it’s not just the fact that desktops appear to be the choice here. Since we’re talking education and Microsoft, why aren’t we talking Tablet PCs? Come on. I just don’t get this. Tablet PCs are a competitive advantage to Microsoft. What about costs you say? That’s where the UMPCs and designs such as the Classmate PC come in. The 7″ displays were specifically chosen because they are so widely used. It keeps the cost down. This also means that adding touch to a UMPC can be done for very little, if any premium at all. That’s right. Ink and touch-enabled, portable devices are feasible today because of the numbers. If Microsoft isn’t willing to ride its own Tablet PC band-wagon, who is supposed to?

What gets me even more about this is that of all the companies, shouldn’t Microsoft be advocating most strongly for its own technologies? I at least see Bill Gates do it in most of his public presentations. When he talks about computers in education, he almost always mentions Tablet PCs. That’s good. But where’s the beef? I can understand Intel with its Classmate PC not caring one way or another if it supports touch. That’s fine. And I can appreciate MIT going its own way with a custom, mouse-pad-like digitizer rather than one built into the display. They’re at least being creative, trying to build a machine well-targeted toward education. At least they see that touch and ink input is good in education. But Microsoft picking desktops over Tablets? Tell me it isn’t so.

Orlando, if you’re reading this, all I’ve got to say is give Tablet PCs another look. Not convinced? Invite a couple educators over, such as Ken Collura, and let him describe how Tablets have enhanced their classrooms. Or give me a handful of minutes to show you how ISVs have been ink-enabling their applications. And now with ink support in Silverlight, I’ll give you some web-possibilities that are sure to get you thinking. Or next MVP Summit invite over the Tablet PC MVPs for 15 short minutes or drop into the forums at GottaBeMobile (there are others too, but this one’s often the most active), and chat with Tablet PC customers, and listen to their stories. I guarantee that if you’ve doubted Tablets up to this point, you’ll begin to see how they fit in.

To me, it seems like an emerging market program is an excellent opportunity to move forward with Tablets. You don’t have to take what’s cheap and shoehorn it into some supposed cost structure. This is an opportunity to leverage the latest trends.

And think about it in terms of the education side. Which way do you want to reinforce young kids working through math problems? By typing? Or by handwriting? And what about the skills of handwriting itself and practicing eye-hand coordination? And what about encouraging those who are lucky enough to be able to draw to do so with essentially no extra materials? No paper. No pens. No pencils. Draw and share. And think about what it mobility can means to education. Imagine students working together in ad-hoc groups with their Tablets/UMPCs. In the classroom. In the field. At home. In small groups. As a class as a whole–exchanging content with the teacher. It all makes sense.

My hope is that even if Microsoft is committed to this desktop program for now, that they’re open to other possibilities down the road.

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