Computer reinvented

Print edition : May 12, 2001

The arrival of the Simputer, a low-cost hand-held computing device, generates hopes of bridging the digital divide.

SO-this-is-the-story-of-the-Simputer. As-you-can-see-the-Simputer-can-also-talk! The presentation in stacato Hindi, along with an enlarged visual of the neat palm-held device from which the voice emanated, drew a ripple of admiring murmurs from the select gathering of Bangalore's computer savvy elite that had come together at the auditorium of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore. The event was the launch of the Simputer, an audacious little digital device that its inventors believe can offer an inexpensive and efficient information and networking environment for people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide. The authors of the device, computer academics and professionals, who were dressed for the occasion like members of an all-boys club in nifty white T-shirts that displayed the Simputer logo and legend, gave a multi-media demonstration of some of the features and functions of the Simputer. The Simputer had received just enough pre-launch publicity to whet the curiosity of the interested public. In the first public demonstration of its capabilities, Vijay Chandru, Professor, Department of Computer Science and Automation, Indian Institute of Science, and one of the seven members of the Simputer Trust, showed the Simputer's text-to-speech capabilities (in several Indian languages); its use as a portable literacy instructor (again, in more than one Indian language); its text and editing functions; its ability to communicate voice messages; and the use of the SmartCard facility for commercial transactions and personalised use of the device.

The Simputer team in Bangalore.-G.P. SAMPATHKUMAR

What exactly is this device that has already evoked tremendous interest in the professional world as well as amongst potential clients (who range from persons involved in micro-banking initiatives, to governments of several developing countries that see in it a range of low-cost possibilities for more effective governance).

The Simputer (which refers to Simple Computer) is a hand-held, low-cost, easy-to-use, computing device which can run on three AAA batteries or direct power supply. Its features and capabilities are greater when compared to other palm-held devices in the market. Its great competitive advantage remains its cost, which at Rs.9,000 (if manufacturing volumes are above 50,000 units) is much cheaper than the nearest comparable hand-held device manufactured by Compaq, which retails for around Rs.33,000. Although it can be mistaken for a palmtop in looks, it is much more powerful than a palmtop in terms of screen size (a high resolution quarter VGA (240x320) LCD display panel), memory capabilities (32MB Ram), and a GNU/Linux operating system. Its dimensions are 8cmx13cmx2cm. Internet connectivity is achieved through a "soft" dial-up modem. A Universal Serial Bus (USB) port enables the user to add peripherals such as a keyboard or mouse. Its software technology will be modular and based entirely on free software from the Open Source Initiative.

There are yet other features of the Simputer that set it apart from the hand-held digital device. The first is the IML (Information Markup Language), a new XML application designed specifically for hand-held devices. The primary application interface that a Simputer user sees is the IML browser called imli. The second is the rather ingenious SmartCard Reader/Writer feature, which is a tool for electronic commerce, but which can make the Simputer a shared computing device by allowing for personal information storage and management for a large number of users. The SmartCard, available at a modest price, allows the user individual access to put his/her data or information on the Simputer. Writing software, for use with a stylus, named Tapatap, has also been developed for the Simputer. However, the software is likely to be refined before the commercial launch.

The Simputer has already seen a range of responses. The Simputer Trust claims that with its potential fully harnessed it could become a "platform for social change". At the other end of the spectrum is the view that if the Simputer had offered state-of-the-art technology at affordable prices, that would have been a real breakthrough. The creation of the Simputer is the digital parallel of the reinvention of the wheel.

Chandru partly answers that criticism when he talks about how the Simputer project was conceived in the first place. "What makes our end product new or even unique is that we started with the problem, and created a design that would address the digital divide," he said. "Most palms are designed for urban, Western users. Ours has a different customer and therefore a different design need." The Simputer, he said, had both "aggressive new hardware design and new software", but emphasised that it was the integration of various technologies in a problem-solving approach.

THE Simputer Project, like most collective endeavours inspired by a vision, already has its history, which the members of the Simputer Trust and others involved in the project like to recall. The project was conceived during the organisation of the Global Village, an international seminar on information technology, conducted during the Bangalore IT.Com event in October 1998. The Bangalore Declaration on Information Technology for Developing Countries was a document and a resolve that came out of that seminar. Amongst its clauses were those that actually specified the need for a simputer-like device, so that access to IT could be provided to every citizen regardless of gender, language, handicap, geographical location, class, caste or creed. Seven academicians and computer professionals came together to form the Simputer Trust in November 1999. The basic objective was to create technologies in the IT sphere that could reach the unreached. The Trust also resolved to keep whatever intellectual property that would come of this effort firmly in the public domain through a licensing mechanism, as innovative as the Simputer itself (see box). "We wanted a technology that would help us take IT to the remotest village," said Vinay Deshpande. "It had to be rugged, shareable, relevant to education, communication, people's livelihoods, even entertainment." Two-and-a-half years down the line, the Simputer, which satisfied some of those requirements, was ready. For its creators, the Simputer is just the starting point of what they believe will be an explosion of technological improvements on the original model, refinements that will stay in the public sphere.

The Simputer can have a range of applications, although its creators would like to see it being used on a mass scale for functions such as micro-banking through cooperatives and post-offices, railway ticketing, data collection, and in general, for the many uses that village communities can put it to.

The cost of the Simputer is relatively low largely because the Trust absorbed all development costs. In other words, the two and a half years of research and development that went into the project, which according to Chandru could be valued at roughly $5 million, is not reflected in the price of the product. The Simputer's creators have given off their talents free of cost, and, in keeping with the objectives of the Trust, the IISc and Encore Ltd passed on all intellectual property to the Trust. "We have, however, hit a resource crunch, and the Trust will find it difficult to take this forward to the manufacturing stage." Four of the trustees - Chandru, Manohar, Vinay and Deshpande - have set up Picopeta Simputers Pvt Ltd, which along with the Bangalore-based company VXL Instruments Pvt Ltd, and Encore Software Pvt Ltd are going to be licensed to manufacture the product. Chandru visualises a very different generation of Simputer two years down the line. "New languages and language fonts will be brought in, there will be changes in the server, in the IML content and so on. It should become GSM capable, like a cell phone." With enquiries from sources as geographically removed as Papua New Guinea to the United States, the Simputer Trust now hopes to take a backseat and let the Simputer follow its commercial and technological course.

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