Making PCs more affordable for millions of people.
Endless is launching another program to increase PC access equity in the USA.
First, a brief history of our technology donations.
To date, the free linux-based operating system developed by Endless OS Foundation has been distributed on approximately 5 million PCs around the globe. The OS is designed for communities in need, and especially first-time computer users and offline communities. The OS is pre-loaded with more than a hundred useful open-source resources, games and applications that can improve an offline user’s life in many ways, from learning to creativity to work and play.
Since 2012 and then after our 2020 nonprofit launch, Endless has donated thousands of computers to those in need around the world, with a recent program that distributed hundreds of laptops to in-need students in the USA via Teach For America and other nonprofits during the pandemic and distance learning challenges of 2020. We have also supported programs together with Save The Children, and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to name just a few.
The current need for PC access in the USA.
I mention these philanthropic programs to highlight that our small nonprofit is very focused on donating time and technology that can increase access to a new digital life and economy for those living in the Digital Divide. Mobile devices enable widespread access to consume content and perform small tasks, but for true productivity in the digital economy, the PC is a necessary tool, offering access to education, skills and work.
Yet in 2021 there are still millions of students in the United States living without a proper PC at home, unable to excel in the way that their fellow students with PCs can. In addition, more than half of Americans (56%) say they are living “paycheck to paycheck”. The inability of these families to purchase or finance a computer in this climate is one of the biggest –if not THE biggest– barriers to digital access. So, at Endless we are designing a path for families to purchase their own affordable and powerful laptop – on their terms.
We are exploring a new type of program in the USA that will allow families needing a PC at home to enter into a flexible payment and financing plan towards ownership – if they can afford approximately $1 a day. We feel that this program could significantly help to further bridge the Digital Divide, and close what we call the “affordability gap”.
At Endless, we are designing a path for families to purchase an affordable and powerful laptop – on their terms.
Why would a nonprofit charge for a social-good program?
Why finance? The problem of affordability is a huge one, and to make a real impact Endless is looking to close the PC affordability gap for millions of people. At this scale, philanthropy and state programs alone cannot adequately address the need. A new scalable nonprofit model is needed, so we created our lease-to-own PC program to support under-served communities across the USA.
To some, asking for payments from our participants might not sit well with our nonprofit mission, but this model offers scale and sustainability that is not possible through charity and donations alone. Each repayment we receive helps us to bring a computer to another family in need, giving us a sustainable and scalable model.
By pairing a quality computer with a respectful and affordable payment plan, we bring computer ownership within reach of millions of people, and give them a stake in opening new opportunities for their family. Combined with our other deployments and donations, it’s possible to reach more people than ever before.
We’ve already seen this working around the world.
We’ve seen this work already to some extent in a few parts of the world during our time as a for-profit technology company. During our global work around increasing computer access, we discovered that underserved communities were very interested in microfinancing good quality, low-cost computers if the right creative financing program and affordable price point could be developed. In Guatemala we found people more willing to finance a $500 laptop than to buy a lower-power inexpensive $79 mini-PC.
In Kenya, we found an existing model in another sector – the solar power industry. Lacking fixed grid infrastructure, power is readily provided through the installation of a solar home system, combining the panels with the battery, lights and other appliances such as fridge and TV to transform a household. The up-front cost is provided through a loan, and families have full access and use of the installed solar panel system, while they pay incrementally for access until their loan was paid off. This type of thinking has completely revolutionized energy access and stability in parts of the world – so why not personal computers? Seeing the benefit to people who normally could not afford power, we integrated the same Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) model into the PC, and saw great results.
Immediate benefits delivered to the community.
One quick learning for us was that many entrepreneurial people who had received a new PC in these PAYG programs were able to immediately operate at a profit with skills developed and services rendered on their new PC. The PAYG program had allowed them to step into the digital economy previously inaccessible to them – a way to access the PC was all they needed to get started.
One reason for their success was that their new PCs were running Endless OS. This point is less important as a promotion of our OS as it is to explain why we designed it like we did: our OS comes with “batteries included”. It does not require an internet connection or any additional purchases or subscriptions to be valuable immediately. Many useful and free open-source applications that rival commercial applications, games and learning resources are pre-loaded. Right out of the box kids can do their homework, people can offer translation services, graphic design, copywriting, tutoring and more with the software already contained in the OS.
This program could significantly help to further bridge the Digital Divide, and close the PC affordability gap.
Why is software important for making PCs more affordable?
For a specific translation of the power that free and open source software (FOSS) brings, young designers can immediately create photographic and vector-based images like they could on Adobe Suite products, but without the subscription fees that prevent them from creating in this format. Libre Office provides an office suite similar to Microsoft Office for professional work output, again at no charge. When one of our users does have access to the internet, hundreds of additional apps are available at Flathub to further advance their entrepreneurship, learning, and fun – all for free.
The partnerships required.
Previously outside of the USA, the match of the right PC + our free Linux-based OS + a creative financing partner + a motivated family proved to be a successful impact model aligned with our mission. In the end the need was larger than one company could hope to solve, and we become a nonprofit in 2020. Our new structure means we can focus on the mission and the solution to these problems, opening us up to new partnerships to tackle the scale of the problem together with others. We bring our insight, experience and working technology behind the PAYG program’s potential to bridge the Digital Divide elsewhere in the world.
Will this work in the USA as we launch a beta program?
What works globally in developing nations does not necessarily translate to a country like the United States. But we believe that many of the families impacted by the Digital Divide and Homework Gap in the USA will absolutely benefit from a program like this because the traditional retail path to PC ownership does not work for them. Millions of people do not buy computers because they are outside of their monthly budget, or they are not able to engage with a standard retail loan or credit. This community is ready for an approachable and holistic financial, hardware and software solution that will work with their budget and needs – opening the door to a new digital experience, and the success and stability that PCs bring to so many. Our current target is $1 a day, leading to full ownership in 1–2 years.
How does it work technically? In this program a family will enter into a lease-to-own agreement for their new PC. They immediately receive the PC and have full access through a customized Endless OS. They will make monthly payments on the laptop itself, and once the last payment is made, the PC is theirs to keep and the security system is disabled permanently. In contrast to a traditional and rigid retail credit scenario, if they do not have the ability to make a payment, the PC remains with them. Once they are able to make a payment again, an unlock code is sent to their cell phone to grant access once again. Access to the PC is our overall goal, and we don’t want to leave anybody stuck in a finance plan they cannot afford, so there are no penalties, and they can return the PC at any time to receive their deposit back.
A new lease-to-own PC program could close the PC affordability gap for millions, and support under-served communities in the USA.
Launching in the USA.
Our team at Endless has been working tirelessly to launch the program in the USA in 2021. We have just partnered with a major laptop manufacturer, who is working with Endless on this truly unique social initiative. It is exciting to see engagement from both our nonprofit partners and for-profit companies helping the world adjust to the impact of the pandemic. As our beta program launches, we are hoping this new model proves successful and helps to decrease the size of the Digital Divide in the USA and later, around the world. As a nonprofit we are driven by our mission, and not wedded to one approach or another - all ideas around how to increase access to PCs for students and families around the world should be explored. As we head towards beta and look for initial feedback from our community partners, I am hopeful that we can prove this is a viable model and will report back soon.
Rob McQueen is CEO at the Endless OS Foundation (EOSF). Rob is an experienced engineering manager and company leader, and has been a user, developer and advocate for a Free and Open Source Linux desktop for nearly 20 years. Based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, Rob also currently serves as the President of the GNOME Foundation, a 501(c)(3) in the open source desktop space.