Where computers are truly 'personal'

Print edition : January 05, 2002

India's expertise in Information Technology has quietly matured enough to create products that suit the needs of its people, something that international 'shrink wrapped' solutions can never hope to do.

"THIS is computing as it would have looked, if Gandhi had invented it," said the feature in a recent Sunday edition of The New York Times, which described the best new ideas of the past one year. "The most significant innovation in computer technology in 2001 was not in Apple's gleaming titanium PowerBook G4 (a notebook computer) or Microsoft's Windows XP," the review went on, "It was the Simputer, a Net-linked, radically simple portable computer, intended to bring the computer revolution to the Third World."

The Simputer, developed at IISc.-

Those words would have gladdened a few hearts in Bangalore, where less than a year ago a small group of students and teachers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) was struggling with the umpteen technical problems that cropped up in the course of their attempt to create a radically new computer design, subject to the severest cost constraints. Today the Simple Computer, or Simputer, is being quantity-produced at the Bharat Electronics factory - the first, but not the only location where the device will be manufactured. Five hundred units will be delivered by end-January.

In 1998, the Indian government had coined a mantra: "IT for All by 2008." And the Simputer, more than any other product, exemplified this new thrust, which may yet bridge what has come to be the digital divide between the Information Technology (IT) haves and have-nots. The hand-held device looks like one of those Palm Computers or Pocket PCs, but the resemblance is misleading. The Indian machine has no keyboard. Instead, it has a novel way to tap in data. It is possibly the first hand-held computer to work off three standard AAA-sized penlight cells and to forsake proprietary, "shrink wrapped" software such as Windows in favour of the free and "open" Linux.

The Simputer incorporates an innovative "smart card" which allows multiple users to share it - a canny feature because the designers know that its current price of around Rs.15,000 - expected to fall to around Rs.9000 as quantity builds up - is still too high for a buyer in rural India where it is expected to be used. The urban elite already owns desktop PCs and mobile phones. But for the vast majority in rural India, this will be a new tool for empowerment.

Indeed, there is no need to use English: the Simputer has a voice synthesiser, which "speaks" Indian languages - currently it is confined to Kannada.

Incredibly, the Simputer was steered from the drawing board to the factory floor by a group of academics who formed a trust for the purpose and motivated a few private entrepreneurs. It was not a government initiative.

In other ways too, the past year has seen a burgeoning interest in recasting Information Technology in a desi mould, exploiting its potential for personal empowerment and quietly jettisoning its more glitzy, bloated, business-driven features.

FOR citizens of Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi some irritating monthly chores have transformed beyond recognition. At the 'Friends' (Fast Reliable Instant Efficient Network for Disbursement of Services) counters in these two cities, one can avail oneself of a variety of services - pay electricity charges, water bills, house tax, university examination fees and vehicle tax and renew ration cards - all these at one counter. The centres stay open through the week until 7 p.m. Some of the facility's biggest fans are university students who earlier had to miss their classes only to wait in endless queues.

Soon, every district in Kerala will have single-window service centres. This will be the first, tangible, people-oriented benefit that IT has brought to the intensely "aware" people of the State. Less visible, but equally crucial, to Kerala's quest to lead the nation in e-governance are initiatives such as PEARL (Package for Effective Administration of Registration Laws), an effort to automate the functioning of all local registries that was modelled on the lines of the CARD (Computer Aided Administration of Registration) project in Andhra Pradesh (A.P. has its own single-window payment system called e-seva but it is restricted to the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad).

The project to network all 1,215 local bodies in Kerala is well under way. A fistful of local language tools have been created to make this happen: "Sulekha", a Plan monitoring mechanism; "Sanchitha", an encyclopaedic CD-based reference on local administration rules; and "Sevana", a welfare mechanism. In mid-December, these were showcased at an executive summit of Microsoft in India, and were the only e-governance products from India to be featured.

There was a brief hiatus last year when the State had a new government in position; and for some weeks in mid-2001, when there were doubts whether the Information Kerala Mission (IKM), the group that provides planning and implementation muscle for the State's IT thrust, would survive the compulsions of internecine politics. Fortunately, the new Congress(I)-led ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) knew better than to tinker with a winning formula, and IKM is still in business.

A long tradition of radical planning has given to Kerala's IT efforts a "people-oriented" thrust that may yet help the State, a late starter, to catch up its neighbours in harnessing technology for better governance.

ACROSS the border, in Karnataka, a savvy Chief Minister S.M. Krishna has spread the word in bureaucratic corridors: Bangalore is by happenstance the silicon capital of the country, the chosen destination for the cream of the computers-and-communication industry. The message is clear - if you cannot help the process, at least get out of the way and do not hinder it with needless red tape.

In Bangalore's 'cool school' of IT ideas, engineers have just completed the first major reworking in years of the industry-standard desk top publishing (DTP) package "Pagemaker". For its American principals, Adobe, Bangalore is the natural research and development centre for its global product range. Adobe is not alone. Texas Instruments, one of the first international IT companies to hoist its exclusive satellite dish antenna and provide an umbilical to its U.S. headquarters, left the rejigging of a prestige Digital Signal Processor (DSP) chip to its Bangalore boffins. Only weeks ago, Texas Instruments (India) announced two new processor chips based on the made-in-India "Mantra" core.

Marketing agencies have long been aware that the citizens of places such as Bangalore and Kochi are rather faster on the uptake when it comes to accepting new life-enhancing techno-gadgets. Which is why, when WorldSpace, a global leader in direct satellite-based radio decided to extend its footprint across the subcontinent, it marketed its four models of mostly Japanese-make receivers in these two cities, linking with the three Asiasat satellites whose swath covers the continent. These state-of-the-art radios, which are considered the biggest advance in wireless broadcast technology in almost a century, can pick up the CD-quality stereo output of hundreds of music and news stations round the clock. Interestingly, WorldSpace set up shop here (with BPL as a marketing partner) a good nine months before similar technology was "pioneered" by two American agencies, XM Radio and Sirius, in September 2001.

Tara wrote in English, but there is growing realisation that for genuinely bridging the digital divide, the assault must be in Indian languages. With 18 official languages, 10 scripts and 1,650 dialects, this is no mean challenge.

Pune has emerged as the Indian language software capital of the country. It is home to the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), the government-funded agency that pioneered Indian language computing aids such as the popular multilingual word processor, "Leap". Possibly because of this, Pune has seen a number of private language initiatives grow around C-DAC - Modular Systems, Cirrus Electronics, Seacom and so on.

MEANWHILE, the Delhi officialdom is alive to the urgency of Indian language computing. The Technology Development for Indian Language (TDIL) initiative of the Information Technology Ministry has collated information of language initiatives at several institutions, both private and public. It has placed a full slate of freely downloadable language tools, including tools for Sanskrit at its website www.tdil.gov.in. In a quiet way it is trying to stimulate the multinational software leaders such as Microsoft, Lotus, IBM and Oracle to Indianise their core products. As yet, such support has been rarely beyond the cosmetic. The world's most widely used software, Windows is available in dozens of language versions, including Serbo Croat and multiple versions of Chinese. But Microsoft, whose CEO Bill Gates has made some high-profile visits to India, has not so far rejigged Windows in Hindi and Tamil, two of the world's leading languages. TDIL has also developed a code set for the complete Devanagiri font that is compatible with the emerging global non-English standard, "Unicode".

But if the pace is slow in India, do not blame all Indians. The International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil (INFINIT), now just 18 months old, has already held three International Tamil Internet conferences - the last two in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, where enterprising Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) pooled their resources to try and give Tamil a significant Web presence.

These overseas Indians have already created what is seen globally as a new IT niche - Indian language multimedia entertainment, via broadband networks. The Chennai-based Num TV (www.numtv.com), and the Mumbai-based Sharkstream (www.sharkstream.com) are two India-based providers, whose customer base is largely abroad. They provide a rich fare of Indian movies, satellite TV fare and other Cinema-based entertainment, to those who have the connectivity to run a stream of such pixel-rich video content. And in anticipation of the day when Indians at home can command the bandwidth to receive such traffic, the other Chennai-based company, G.V. Films, has rapidly acquired rights to a huge library of Indian films. A few months ago, G.V. Films undertook a contract to supply over 4,000 Hindi movies in electronic form to the U.K.-based Zen & Art, who then feed them to local subscribers there.

With the world's largest film industry, it was inevitable that Indian software savvy and film expertise would such find a happy meeting ground. The result of this synergy can be seen in the work of pioneering companies such as Pentamedia in Chennai, Toonz Animation in Thiruvananthapuram's Technopark and Zee TV in Mumbai - who have carved out an all-desi but internationally angled animation film industry. Toonz, part-owned by an NRI and some of the best ex-Disney/Warner talent, has put the Kerala capital on the global animation map with its annual "Week with the Masters" - an Indian-American sadas of animation talents. Pentamedia has made a pathbreaking full-motion 3-D animated full length feature, Pandavas: The Five Warriors, which won a national award in 2001 and was snapped up for showcasing on the Turner-owned Cartoon Network. Even while Hollywood is still grappling with the possibilities of digitally distributing films to theatres using the Internet and satellite, an Indian company, ETC Networks, has quietly signed up theatres for this new, high-tech way of getting prints into hundreds of cinema halls simultaneously on a Friday morning.

But language apart, the government has been painfully slow in persuading or assisting industry to come up with a genuinely Indian, affordable PC platform. The Rs.10,000 barrier seemingly cannot be breached unless fiscal and other concessions are provided. Yet the Manufacturers' Association of IT (MAIT) is confident that 2002 will see a genuine low-cost janata PC, at the price of a colour television set. The wish list for such an "appropriate" PC would be on these lines: like the Simputer, it will probably run on the free Linux operating system; it should open with the menu in an Indian language of choice; and English would be an option, not a default. It will enable Indians to send and receive e-mails in their mother tongue.

On December 2, 2000, over one lakh people stepped into neighbourhood centres of India's leading computer trainer, NIIT, to make use of a special computer literacy drive held to mark "World Computer Literacy Day". While most of them paid Rs.500 for a 10-hour module, more than 12,000 students from government schools and at least 8,000 legislators received free training. NIIT had focussed the aspirations of thousands of families on a concrete and achievable goal - a basic computer awareness. The candidates ranged from inmates in Tihar jail to the national capital's Afghan and Iranian populations. Many women from a village near Jodhpur in Rajasthan found a new use for their traditional marble chapathi rolling tablets: as mouse pads. In the course of a single day these people demonstrated that the will to exploit IT for the general good was there. All that they needed was for someone to show the way.

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