[IAEP] The Guardian: PlayPower: 1980s computing for the 21st century

Jecel Assumpcao Jr jecel at merlintec.com
Sat Nov 7 17:48:28 EST 2009

Martin Langhoff wrote:
> Interesting. Though the challenge they have -- localising closed src
> binaries... to non ASCII-using locales -- is rather hard.

The non ASCII is a complication, but changing binaries was very popular
in Brazil in the 1980s (the copyright law here was only extended to
software in 1987). A serious limitation of this project is that just
because the machines are openly being sold in a market in India (here in
Brazil too, but closer $100 than $12...) doesn't mean that there are no
legal issues. Nintendo is simply ignoring them as few units are sold
compared to normal PCs or modern videogame consoles. If this project is
a success and sales increase significantly, this could quickly change.

It is odd that the article talks about expired patents as the reason for
lower prices. Most early machines weren't even patented: the original PC
(1981) wasn't, the PC AT (1984) had seven patents in all and the PS/2
(1987) was the first one that IBM tried to seriously protect and it
backfired on them. The main factor for the low costs is Moore's law: you
can either get twice the transistors for the same price in 18 months or
the same transistors for about half the cost.

The PC industry has mostly followed the first option while the OLPC was
explicitly created to take advantage of the decreasing costs curve
instead. Building in 2007 what was essentially a mid range laptop from
1997 got you an entirely new price point. If we imagine the Famicom (the
current $12 computer) in 1985 with about $30 of electronics and the
Commodore Amiga with $300 in the same year, in 1997 eight cycles of
Moore's law would have passed and we would have $0.12 and $1.17 of
electronics in modern remakes of these machines. Except that packaging
and testing would be about the same for both options and the costs of
the case and keyboard would totally dominate the sales price.

I guess the point of trying to make educational use of a $12 Famicom
(NES in the USA) instead of a more reasonable $13 Amiga is that the
first exists and is being sold right now. But like I said, the volumes
are not impressive. If the numbers are to be expanded to cover whole
poor countries then the investment that has to be made could certainly
support a little development, right? It has been done before:


The reason why I said the Amiga was more "reasonable" is that the
PlayPower plan is to allow people to connect to the Internet. Even the
Commodore 64 has a new operating system (Contiki) that allows that in a
very limited way, but the Famicom is just too weak.

I would love to see a project like this be a massive success, but don't
think the path they are taking is the best option.

-- Jecel

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