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Crowdsourcing Revisited: Endless to tap internet-poor middle class

From One Laptop Per Child to the likes of Keepod, there’s no shortage of companies looking to bridge the digital divide between the rich and poor. But few cater for the people who can afford to live well, but don’t have the internet access to join the digital revolution?

San Francisco-based Endless Computers is one company trying to do just that; its eponymous computer; a lost-cost desktop based device with an aesthetic akin to the colourful Apple G3 iMacs targeting the growing middle classes of emerging markets.

In lieu of cloud services, the Linux-based Endless is designed for areas where there is little to no internet and comes pre-loaded with offline-apps for the developing world; Health/Wellness, Farming, Finance, Entertainment, Encyclopaedia etc. When we spoke to CEO Matt Dalio back in May 2015, he said the idea for the eponymous computer came from his travels in India, where everyone had phones and TVs, but often little internet access.

The company managed to raise over $170,000 on Kickstarter. “The Kickstarter campaign surpassed our wildest expectations,” says Rob Banning, Director of Global Communications at Endless. “Everything has been delivered and the feedback from our backers has been nothing short of amazing. People in emerging markets love Endless and the experience of using a new OS developed for them.”

The original campaign saw over 400 computers ordered, plus five schools in Guatemala outfitted, and unlike many projects, Endless fulfilled its orders with little fuss. “We had a team of people dedicated to making sure the experience of working with us and with Kickstarter exceeded expectations,” Bannning explains. “We were nimble, responsive and able to troubleshoot with minimal delays. We tried to plan for every contingency and every outcome well in advance, setting us up for success from the outset.”

An emerging middle class

Although the Endless has seen some success in schools, Endless’ main target audience is the mushrooming middle classes, a group Banning describes as: “On the cusp of having disposable income and the ability to purchase a desktop computer, often their first one.”

But with the desktop PC market declining rapidly, is there still demand for them in emerging markets when smartphones and tablets are so cheap and readily available?

“Absolutely. We get this question a lot, and while the PC market is declining globally, there is still a very large opportunity in emerging markets. While people in these markets have access to smartphones and tablets, the full functionality of a desktop computer is what will make the difference between access to information and acting on information.

“Let me put it another way: In emerging markets you tend to see more motorcycles/mopeds than many other places in the world, where you see cars more often. Motorcycles/mopeds are an inexpensive alternative to a car - but when it comes down to it, most people would prefer a car because of the utility, comfort and overall usability - we view smartphones and tablets as the motorcycle in this instance.”

Where the traditional model provides a near-blank slate and let people download the software they want, the “internet optional” approach means Endless has to choose what comes with the package. “We went into the field and asked people what they wanted and then built from there,” he says. “The content on each device is localised to each market - special apps for Mayan culture, for instance, are included on devices shipped to Guatemala.”

The Endless OS current has over 150 apps in total currently – available in English, global Spanish, Guatemalan Spanish, Portuguese and French - with more planned for 2016 and beyond.

2016: Endless Mini and the future

The Endless itself hasn’t changed much since the Kickstarter project, but at this year’s CES, the company revealed its new model, the Endless Mini. A smaller, cheaper version of its big brother, the mini comes armed with an ARM processor. “Aside from the obvious, shape, the ARM processor allowed us to significantly lower the price while barely impacting performance.”

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Following a partnership with Claro Americas – a division of Mexican telecoms giant América Móvil - the Mini is now on sale in Guatemala, a country where internet penetration is around 23%. At only $79, it’s a cheap device, but Clara will allow customers to pay in monthly instalments in order to fit in with their budgets. “Our goal is to get Endless into as many hands as possible, we are willing to reduce our profit margins, not to zero, we are a business after all. But in order to achieve scalability and adoption, we will make some concessions.”

The company is also helping NGOs with the refugee crisis around Syria. “We are working with numerous NGO’s in the region to provide access to information and Endless’ technology in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan,” Banning explains. “Endless is currently being used by the learning centres in the camps as well as in individual users’ homes. We have stories of people in the camps using Endless for local publications, managing small businesses and self-taught/self-directed education for youth in the camps.”

As well as the Kickstarter, Endless has closed a new round of financing from “both existing and new investors” to help drive the company’s expansion. For now, Banning says that rather than run a second campaign, the company is “likely stick with more traditional methods, press outreach, paid ad campaigns and social media to grow our footprint and tell our story”.

Banning refuses to reveal sales figures, although CEO Dalio told the WSJ that they weren’t going to be impressive in the short term. “Right now, we are working to perfect and streamline our distribution and sales channels for maximum efficiency.”

In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Dalio suggested Endless see themselves more a software provider than a hardware company, and in the future may license its Endless OS operating system to other hardware companies.

“We have a number of exciting projects coming down the pipeline over the next 18 months,” Banning promise. “We are growing tremendously fast in global markets and have hired GM’s in Mexico, China and Brazil to help manage our growth.”

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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