Intel Atom Processor: Disruptive Innovation in Energy-Efficient Computing

Published on: Mar 22 2010 by Wayan Vota

Power. That’s the real problem for information and communication technologies (ICT) in the developing world. Specifically, electrical power, and the lack there of. All the coolest ICT tools, from radio to computers, the very Internet itself, require electricity, and usually vast amounts of it.

solar power in Africa$10 per Watt in Africa

Yet in the developing world, electricity is very rare and expensive. National electrical grids don’t extend past the national capitol or major trading city. Outside of population centers, electricity is generated by local, even personal generators.

Often noisy, polluting, diesel or petrol generators that need constant repair, or very expensive and delicate solar panels that break or disappear overnight. Either way, electrical infrastructure costs usually exceeded the ICT investment, often by 2-3 times.

These two opposing forces collided during the 2000’s, as the international development industry, local governments, and communities themselves tried to bring ICT to rural and underserved areas, with disastrous results.

Untold millions of dollars, man-hours, and even computers were lost in these ICT for development (ICT4D) projects when energy sucking computers starved themselves and their hosts, as they gorged on rare, expensive electrons.

We would still be wasting silicon and staff today, if it were not for one, very small invention that has literally revolutionized an industry: the Intel Atom processor.

Atom CPU: Disruptive ICT4D Innovation

In 2008, partly in response to the hype around One Laptop Per Child, Intel announced the Atom series of processors. Here was a processor that had enough power – 1.6 GHz clock speed – to do most applications that users deemed necessary.

Intel Atom motherboard

It also was very energy efficient – 2.5 Watts – and Intel sold them at very cheap prices to computer manufactures.

The power envelop in such a cheap and energy-efficient package was truly a disruptive new-market innovation that has shifted the ICT demand curve.

New-Market Innovation

Clayton Christensen, the originator of the disruptive innovation concept, says that “new-market” disruptive innovation is when non-consumers – consumers who would not have used the products already on the market – are now able to consume.

In the information and communications technologies for development (ICT4D) field, we’ve been using a number of different solutions to try and bridge the gap between high-powered computers and the low-resource environments we want them to work in.

We’ve tried everything from only using older, lower performance technology like AMD Geode-powered computers, to reducing the number of computers involved to match the amount of electricity a community can support.

But these were only stopgap measures. Every day the grid-powered world got better, faster technology and everyone else got farther and father behind. We, and the communities we served, were non-consumers of the faster, better technology.

Our clients could not afford the infrastructure for modern computing or had to travel great distance and expense to use it in major cities.

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Making ICT4D Affordable

With its low price, and low power consumption, the Atom was doubly affordable in ICT4D applications. We could move from non-consumers to immediate, large-scale consumption of modern information and communication technologies.

The Atom’s lower processor price meant that the end computing product, be it a netbook or desktop PC, would have a lower retail price. In fact, quality netbooks can now be had for $400 – less than half the cost of the cheapest laptops just 3 years ago. But these savings, while significant in isolation, pale in comparison to the power-cost savings.

The real disruptive innovation is the Atom processors power profile. The chipset is so energy-efficient, Inveneo could develop computing solutions that draw less than 20 Watts – the output of a battery – and free ourselves from direct generator power or large solar panel arrays. This drastically reduced the electrical costs of computer deployment, making ICT even more affordable.

A typical desktop computer can consume 200 Watts of electricity in normal operation. In Africa, where a solar power installation costs an average of $10-15 per Watt, that’s $2000+ just for the power infrastructure for one computer. An Atom-powered desktop can use just 17 Watts, requiring only a $170 solar power investment – 1/10th the cost of comparable computing systems.

In fact, with Atom-based computing, the total cost of computer ownership drops below free. As we calculated above, even donated traditional computers actually cost at least $2,000 – their electrical infrastructure cost – while a new Atom-based computer and is power infrastructure is less than $1,500.

Inveneo Computing Station

Significant Market Impact

At Inveneo, we’ve switched to an all-Atom product lineup and our sales have jumped. We’re seeing double-digit growth in our equipment sales. Our Computing Station performance meets the needs of our clients at a fraction of the absolute and total cost of traditional computers – even donated ones.

And we are not alone. Almost everyone else in the ICT4D space is all-Atom all the time as well, and from what I hear, also experiencing a noticeable uptick in product sales and project sustainability.

The Atom chipset also spawed the netbook, which has opened up computer sales to two new buyers:

  1. Urban elites in Africa and South Asia who can now afford a laptop for themselves and their families
  2. Mobile phone companies like Safaricom, who are selling subsidized netbooks to increase data network sales

In addition to the developed world buyers, they’ve helped drive netbook sales to $11 billion in 2009 – over 20% of the entire mobile computing market from 0 in 2007.

So for all of us in ICT4D, I’d like to thank Intel for the disruptive Atom processor innovation. Its a bright spot for an otherwise cut-throat hardware industry that often ignores ICT4D needs.


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Wayan Vota is a Senior Mobile Advisor at FHI 360 and is a regular contributor to ICTworks. He co-founded ICTworks, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, Technology Salon, Educational Technology Debate, OLPC News, Kurante, and a few other things.
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