It's a conundrum that the best and brightest of the tech industry haven't yet solved: how to get computers to the "next billion" customers in developing countries.
The highest-profile effort to date, called One Laptop Per Child, has run into a series of setbacks (BusinessWeek.com, 3/5/08). Spearheaded by digital guru Nicholas Negroponte, the U.N.-supported program envisions equipping millions of children in Africa, Asia, and Latin America with innovative $100 laptops. But demand for the devices has been lower than expected, in part because they still cost nearly twice their intended price.
Some people suggest perhaps the solution isn't to put hardware into the hands of every person, but rather to maximize the number of people who can use each PC. That's the idea behind Paris startup Jooce (the name is a play on "juice," as in electricity), which has devised a novel software system that lets many people use a single machine as though it were theirs alone.
Whether in an Internet café or village kiosk, a PC equipped with Jooce software gives each person who logs in a customized environment—complete with programs, preferences, bookmarks, buddy lists, and so forth. That way, even though many people may use the machine each day, it feels "personal" to each one. Jooce also lets subscribers securely store online an unlimited number of documents, photos, videos, and other data—as well as giving them the ability to share those files easily with other Jooce users.
Enormous Potential Market
Jooce's remarkable plan is to offer this capability for free. Revenues will be derived from targeted ads that will appear on Jooce screens. Though the company won't reveal the names of specific advertisers, it says soccer clubs, consumer-products companies, and even movie studios already have expressed interest in reaching likely clients. There are an estimated 500 million people around the world who access the Internet every day, but don't own—and can't afford—their own PCs.
That's an enormous opportunity. Taken together, only about 1 million low-cost computers have been sold into the developing world via Negroponte's OLPC initiative and rival schemes such as the Classmate PC from Intel (INTC) and the Eee from Taiwan's Asus, reckons industry analyst Roger Kay, founder of consultancy Endpoint Technologies. That means "…99% of the market is unpenetrated, so if somebody figures out a way to do this it should take off like a shot," Kay says.
Jooce is the brainchild of three young entrepreneurs who met while working on digital-divide policy at the Paris office of the International Chamber of Commerce. American Chief Executive Stefan Surzycki is a 33-year-old Indiana native who started programming computers at the age of 7. He and co-founders Bryce Corbett, an Australian, and Aleks Stojanoski, from Macedonia, all were struck by the ease and power of Web-based software tools such as Hotmail, photo-sharing services, and online storage. Yet they felt online programs alone weren't enough to bridge the digital divide.
People in developing countries, they figured, also needed a software interface that let them create and manage their online identities. Along with six other programmers, Surzycki got to work on the technology behind Jooce and managed to raise an undisclosed amount of funding from Luxembourg-based venture capital firm Mangrove Capital Partners, one of the original backers of Skype (EBAY).
Since going live a little more than a month ago, Jooce already has racked up nearly 100,000 users. Equally impressive, the startup has been selected as a finalist for an award from online tech publisher CNET (CNET) in a category that pits it against Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), Yahoo (YHOO), and Adobe (ADBE). That's pretty heady company for a tiny outfit with just 11 employees.
Jooce's virtual desktop is now being tested in Internet cafés and access points, or telecenters, all over the world. One of the most successful rollouts to date is in Macedonia, a landlocked Balkan country about the size of Vermont. The government has an ambitious project to provide free Internet access to its entire population.
Nenad Miprovic, a 23-year-old IT manager at a government-run Internet café nestled between a bank and a restaurant on a bustling street in the capital city of Skopje, says the Jooce virtual desktop has been embraced by just about everyone who walks into the center, which is painted a cheery red and white. The café is equipped with 20 computers and is open 16 hours a day, seven days a week. It typically hosts around 190 people daily, primarily between the ages of 9 and 40.
"Jooce solves a lot of problems for people who don't have computers in their homes," says Miprovic. "It allows them to store and organize their data, video, and audio in their own place, where no one else can enter, and they can use chat and share files just like on a standard computer." Jooce is proving most popular with the under-20 crowd, he says.
Pitching to the U.N.
The software also is being tested in Africa, Asia, and Latin America through Telecenter.org, a Canadian organization that supports more than 30,000 telecenters worldwide. "They all like it," says Meddie Mayanja, a senior program officer in charge of networks for the group. Jooce software is already available in 19 languages and soon will expand to 30.
Now, to gain the support of the United Nations, Jooce is pitching its virtual desktop to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a branch of the U.N. that has established telecenters in the developing world as part of its broader mandate to "connect the unconnected" by 2015. According to 2006 ITU statistics, there is still wide disparity in Internet connectivity between regions: In Europe, some 38% of people, on average, are on the Web, vs. just 4.8% of people in Africa.
"The ITU is working with many partners to expand access in underserved communities," Sami Al Basheer Al Morshid, the director of the ITU's telecommunication development bureau, said in a written response to a BusinessWeek inquiry about Jooce. "We applaud the efforts of those working on new innovative platforms to help people who don't have access to their own computers or Internet."
To be sure, Jooce has its doubters. Analyst Brian Gammage of market researcher Gartner (IT) says he fears the startup could be overtaken by deeper-pocketed companies such as Google and Microsoft, which are also eyeing the developing world and offer online programs and storage.
Plus, it's not clear whether there will be enough ad support to pay Jooce's freight. The company plans to let advertisers create their own "Jooce skins," a kind of background wallpaper on the Jooce desktop, to build brand awareness. "The more creative, innovative, and stylish the skin, the more appealing it will be to the Jooce user," says co-founder Corbett. Ads can be built in dynamic Flash technology, so "we're talking interactive, clever, non-obtrusive advertising," Corbett says.
Before Jooce can attract big dollars, it has to hit a certain volume of users. The company is hoping to spread by word of mouth as Hotmail and Skype did, and even someday to become a part of the language—much as today people use "google" and "skype" as verbs. One possibility: "Is your computer jooced?"
Corbett's personal favorite, and the current front-runner for the company's ad campaign, is: "Have you been se-jooced?" The company's founders and financial backers can only hope that millions of people will be.