Ultra-portable laptops and the unions: A revolution in the making

With gas prices soaring and food prices at a new high, this seems an odd time to raise the subject of things getting cheaper. But in one small corner of our consumer universe, one commodity that used to be owned only by very rich has suddenly, almost overnight, become very cheap indeed.
I’m speaking about ultra-portable, ultra-light laptop computers.
A year ago, if you wanted to buy a truly portable computer, you’d be looking at a Sony Vaio, for example, weighing in at a couple of pounds. And it would have cost you something like $3,000. Even Apple’s latest laptop, the MacBook Air, costs $1,800 in its cheapest configuration.
But in the last six months a new breed of tiny, powerful laptops has become available for $400.
A 90% drop in the price of a tool that can be so useful to unions is something that should make us sit up and take notice.

Why has the price of laptops gone into freefall? And what are the implications for our unions?
I would say there are three reasons for the sudden fall in the price of very light, small laptops.
The first is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. This, the brainchild of tech guru Nicholas Negroponte and endorsed by the United Nations, aimed to produce a net-connected laptop for $100. Mass production began in November last year. The first laptops are already in the hands of school children in developing countries. If you can create a fully functioning laptop computer for $100, it’s kind of hard to make the case that the lowest priced laptops should cost ten or twenty times that much money. The OLPC has changed the way the industry and consumers think about laptop pricing.
The second reason for the fall in price has to do with changed perceptions of what people want and need in a laptop. For many people, such a computer will be their second machine — keeping a desktop or heavy “desktop replacement” laptop for most of their work. That being the case, the new ultra-lights don’t need massive hard drives. You won’t be storing your entire music collection and your digital videos on one of these. In some cases, you can get rid of the traditional computer hard drive entirely, as Asus has done with its hugely popular “eee” range of $400 mini-laptops. (They’ve sold 1,000,000 of them in the last six months.) The “eee” uses a solid-state memory component rather than the traditional hard drive. This means that they can work faster, are more robust (fewer parts to break), and cost less.
A third and final reason for the emergence of the sub-$400 PC is the rise of Linux. The Asus eee and other models run on variations of this free, open-source operating system. Most people who buy computers don’t realize that they’re paying for Windows when it comes pre-installed on their computers — and it can cost hundreds of dollars. Simply replacing Windows with Linux can cut the cost of a laptop dramatically, as well as increasing its speed, power and security. (You don’t have to buy an anti-virus software package either.)
So what does this mean for our unions?
If we accept the idea that computers can be useful tools (and I think most of us now buy into this), we have an opportunity to arm our organizers, activists, officials, and staff with tiny, light, powerful laptops that will give them Internet access, email, the web, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and just about everything they need — for a fraction of what these things used to cost. (The Asus eee comes with Skype as well, and a built-in web-camera. You can do free videoconferencing on this $400 machine.)
Many union staffers, officials and activists do not have computers at home — they rely on desktops in their offices. (And many of them are not allowed to do union business on the company’s machines.) Some have access only to older desktops which are limited in what they can do. Some have laptops that are portable only in name — huge, clunky machines that are so unpleasant to carry around that one tends to leave them on the desktop.
Asus has produced the first successful sub-$400 laptop. They’ve been followed by HP with its Mini-Note (slightly more expensive, at $500 – but with a larger screen and keyboard). Dell has just announced that it too will be manufacturing its own cheap ultra-portable. The price is going to fall, and the models will become more powerful. The best and cheapest of them will run variants of Linux.
This is not good news for Microsoft. But it is potentially great news for us. Giant corporations don’t really need very cheap laptops — for years now, businesses have been able to afford laptops for their managers and others. But for unions and other organizations, the price has been a deterrent. No more.
Imagine a union where everyone had the very latest software, in a light, portable powerful laptop. Where everyone had wireless net access and wasn’t chained to their desks. It’s a change as dramatic as the invention of the portable, battery-powered radio a few decades ago — or more recently, the mobile phone.

2 Comments on "Ultra-portable laptops and the unions: A revolution in the making"

  1. The trouble is the costs of the raw materials and other factors such as labour costs rising in china mean that computer costs are set to rise. This from the FT

  2. Rising labour costs in China are definitely a good thing for Chinese workers. I do not begrudge Chinese workers (or any other workers) getting a raise in pay! They deserve it!
    But even still, the cost of UMPC’s will remain lower than that of other notebook computers.
    One of the major factors is not being required to pay the “Microsoft Tax”. Licensing costs for Microsoft Windows adds anywhere from $50-100 to the cost of a PC.
    Licensing Microsoft Office (and other proprietary software) can add on additional costs.
    Microsoft Windows does not “scale down” to work well on “low horsepower” computers. On the other hand the free software GNU/Linux operating system does this very well and has the leap on Microsoft on UMPC machines.
    See my post at http://leftylabourtech.blogspot.com

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