A Chinese company called YellowSheepRiver wants to make affordable budget computing a reality with its new US$150 Linux Municator, a highly compact and innovative PC built with inexpensive Chinese hardware components. Although MIT’s much touted US$100 Linux laptop has yet to transcend its status as vaporware, YellowSheepRiver already has a working product which could potentially be available for purchase within the next three months.
Urging potential customers to “Say no to Wintel,” YellowSheepRiver is devoted to using its own Linux distribution and hardware designed and manufactured by Chinese companies. YellowSheepRiver hopes to close the “digital divide” by making computer technology available to the Chinese public at an affordable price. The Municator, which comes with 256MB of RAM, uses a unique 64-bit CPU with an instruction set based on a subset of the MIPS architecture. Designed by a Chinese company called BLX, the the cheap chip is clocked at 400 or 600MHZ and supposedly provides performance comparable to that of an Intel P3. Unlike MIT’s laptop, the Municator is not designed to be a mobile computer. Rather than using an LCD display, it features support for S-video and VGA which will enable it to interface with televisions and monitors. For storage, the Municator comes with a 40 GB external USB drive and support for an optional external optical drive. With four USB 2.0 ports and built-in ethernet support, the Municator is quite capable of supporting other external devices and connecting to the Internet. According to the YellowSheepRiver web site, integrated WiFi and a lithium-ion battery pack are also available options.
The Municator comes with a lightweight Linux distribution based on RP Linux, a reference implementation for Chinese Linux distributors. The Municator also comes with a variety of commonly used Linux applications including Firefox, Gaim, Red Office, Thunderbird, and Mplayer. The Municator doesn’t use a standard Linux desktop environment; instead it provides a very simple menu-based interface that can be operated with either the keyboard or the mouse.
Aside from the target market of budget computer users, I can think of countless potential uses for Municator technology. A US$150 Linux PC would be a great choice for school computer labs, hospitals, and countless other venues where there is a need for simple Internet access on cheap hardware. With an optional battery pack, the slim 7 x 5.7 x 1.5 inch form factor and the inherent flexibility of Linux software could make the Municator a good system for wearable computing enthusiasts. I can even imagine consumers integrating Municators into cars and other vehicles.
If the Municator becomes a success, we may see other companies attempt to reducing licensing costs and development overhead by utilizing open source software and non-standard hardware. We may also begin to see sophisticated software technologies integrated into a wider variety of consumer electronics devices and household appliances. The one potential problem that could negatively impact adoption of such technologies is the difficulty associated with building software for a non-standard architecture. Software would have to be cross-compiled specifically for the platform. Are the challenges of cross-compilation significant enough to put a serious damper on adoption? It might make some people hesitant, but based on the wide variety of open source software applications available for increasingly obscure devices like the Linux-based Sharp Zaurus, I doubt that it will be a big problem.