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The Bottom of the Pyramid

My descent (in a good way) into the world of PWB technology began with a presentation at isQED by Joe Fjelstad on the needs of the “rest” of the world when it comes to electronics. I know, it probably feels like “all Joe all the time” today, but he has some interesting ideas – whether you agree with them or not (and speak up below letting us know whether you do or don’t agree, and why).

Here’s my understanding of his concerns. In the developed world, we use consumer electronics as fashion statements: we toss them quickly and get the newest, latest, greatest thing. This is an incredible luxury for many of us; we can keep up with the dramatic changes in technology that bring new capabilities to bear each week.

Well, if a piece of equipment will be used only for a year or so, there’s no need to make it last five years.

Which is a good thing: the most aggressive silicon technologies have transistors wearing out sooner and sooner. Physics is not on the side of long-lasting equipment.

But this becomes a concern for an unlikely grouping of constituents: military, aerospace , medical, automotive, and poor users.

OK, now we all know that, of those, the poor aren’t going to get much sympathy. Just look at the outrage when various poor Americans were seen to be using schwanky phones. Poor people don’t deserve nice equipment.

Maybe that’s how we view it in the developed world, but what about the developing world? Some countries are bypassing landline phones entirely and going to cell phones exclusively. In places like that, cell phones aren’t a luxury; they’re the only option. And the more you can do with them or other wireless hand-held devices, the more solutions can be brought to far-flung communities with little access and no infrastructure.

We’re not talking about bringing incensed avians to the rest of the world here; we’re talking basic health, sanitation, communication, and even financing. These are people that can hardly pay for real things; they’re not going to fork out real cash for imaginary farm output.

And there are billions of people in this category. They just don’t tend to get any attention because they’re not a target market, because they don’t have money. Not only can they not afford to pay much for a device, they need that device to last as long as possible. Unlike us, they do need a phone that will hang in there for five years.

That’s the essence of the challenge Joe lays out. Problem is, how do you get anyone to serve this market? If we’ve got a huge industry that can only survive if people throw away their machines in order to buy new ones, then moving away from a disposable-everything model is an economic death sentence. And when management is motivated only by next quarter’s earnings, doing something with long-term benefits for people that don’t have money for the shareholders isn’t going to be a high priority.

I challenged Joe with those questions both during his presentation and later, one on one, over coffee. I mean, it all seems great; I’d like to teach the world to sing too. But let’s face it: we’re just recovering from an economic debacle driven by a few people trying whatever they can to make as much money as possible in as little time as possible, while producing little to nothing. So yeah, I’m just a tad cynical about whether any of this can get any traction.

And when Joe’s company seeks to offer a more reliable solder-free technology, well, I hope I can be forgiven for having wondered whether this whole pitch was a cynical attempt to sell the technology by tugging on naïve heartstrings.

Having talked face to face, however, I believe his motivations are genuine. That said, he doesn’t have a clear, simple answer as to how this bottom of the pyramid can be served. There’s demand there: he says he got a standing ovation in Malaysia when he gave his pitch. But in a “show me the money” world, it does feel like there might be a smidgeon of Quixote in this. And I think he’d agree with that.

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