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M D Riti in Bangalore
For sheer versatility, the thingamajig is streets ahead of other gizmos. It's simple, it's portable. At about Rs 9,000 per piece, it's highly affordable. One need not know English to be able to operate it. The farmer and the techie can use it alike. It is compatible with your everyday PC, helps you check e-mail, browse the Net, keep accounts, and get information.
It's not a fantasy. It's the Simputer. And it's here.
Visualise a farmer in rural Karnataka or in a village in Uttar Pradesh. He has a small portable computer in his hand, with which he listens to a radio broadcast that tells him what the weather should be like over the next two days, and also what crops it might be suitable for.
He makes a quick decision, calls up his bank, and arranges for some funds to buy seeds and fertiliser he needs. Then, still using his small, hand-held device, he dials up a Net connection, and looks up some handy tips on how to grow that particular crop.
Suggest this possibility to Shankare Gowda in a village in Mandya or Birju Yadav in Bihar, and they will probably find it difficult to stop laughing.
To the rural Indian poor, and even to most city dwellers, a computer is probably as remote an option as a trip to the moon. But things are about to change.
The brains behind the concept
A small group of scientists of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and some engineering professionals from the firm Encore Software have designed this simple device, and set up a trust to take it to the world.
This device, called a Simputer, will be launched formally on April 25 in Bangalore.
This gadget is not a PC. It is a simplified device more like a pocket computer. What distinguishes it from other hand-held devices is its smart card reader.
Besides, it also has an Information Markup Language that is, amongst other thing, smart card aware. It will also have the use of extensive audio in the form of text-to-speech and audio snippets.
An important feature of the Simputer is the SmartCard Reader/Writer. The smart card is emerging as a credible delivery vehicle for financial transactions on the Internet and has become an important tool for electronic commerce.
The incorporation of a smart card reader/writer in the Simputer will, therefore, increase the functionality of the mobile device for deployment of a richer set of value-added services, including services such as home banking through personal ATMs and home shopping.
The Simputer is aimed to be a shared computing device for a local community of users -- such as the village panchayat or the village school or a kiosk or a shopkeeper. Thus, it should be personalised for individual use on a changing basis. The smart card is again the basic method by which this device can be personalised.
A user's individual profile can be stored on a smart card, which he can carry around with him. Once inserted into the smart card interface, the Simputer will read the profile from the smart card and also update changes if any, during the current transaction cycle.
An idea germinates
The Simputer project was conceived during the organisation of an international seminar on information technology for developing countries, conducted during Bangalore IT.com, Karnataka's annual IT trade show, in October 1998.
A discussion paper highlights the need for a low-cost mass access device that will bring local-language IT to the masses. The initial discussions introduced the term Simputer as an obvious twist on the word computer.
For the purpose of establishing originality, a slightly more complex acronym was invented to fit the name Simputer: simple, inexpensive, multi-lingual computer.
And finally in order to appeal to computer geeks, a more complex expansion was also coined, namely simple, inexpensive multi-lingual people's computer.
Just what is a Simputer?
What exactly is the Simputer? Put quite simply, it is more complex and powerful than a palm top.
For example, in terms of screen size (320x240), memory capabilities (32MB RAM) and the OS (GNU/Linux). It runs on an Intel strong-arm chip. The chip is known for its low power consumption.
The Simputer runs on three AAA batteries or off the mains. It can also use rechargeable batteries, but the charger is not built in.
Thus, the Simputer is basically a low-cost computer with multiple connectivity options. It will be modular and based entirely on free software from the Open Source Initiative. Its primary input will be a touch-sensitive overlay on the LCD display panel.
The primary application interface would be a browser that can render the Information Markup Language. IML is a new XML application being designed specifically for handheld devices like the Simputer. The use of XML-based language is in line with the philosophy of utilising global Internet standards.
Speech recognition soon, too
A subsequent version of the Simputer may also use speech recognition for basic navigation through the software menus.
The Speech Dictionary can be easily customized for different Indian languages. A text-to-speech system will also be developed at a later stage.
Quite simply, the Simputer is not a personal computer in the conventional 'PC' sense. The 'Wintel' architecture of the de facto standard PC is quite unsuitable for deployment in the low-cost mass market in any developing country. The entry barrier due to software licensing is just too high.
While the Wintel PC provides a de facto level of standardisation, it is not an open architecture.
The Simputer, on the other hand, will be based on software technology that is open and modular.
The Open Source Initiative is a global software initiative that aims to develop leading-edge technology through a collaborative approach whereby all of the technology is freely available to anybody.
"This provides us several benefits. We benefit from the experience of the vast global pool of experts working on software problems. We also have access to the entire source code, which enables us to deploy the software on any hardware platform that might be cost-effective for us at a certain point in time. It will also have the benefit of peer review processes that ensure a relatively robust and stable end product," says Swami Manohar, an associate professor in the department of computer science and automation of IISc, and one of the seven trustees.
The initial version of the Simputer is based on a StrongARM CPU. The StrongARM is a Reduced Instruction-set microprocessor, which is designed for embedded applications. Several vendors provide ARM based chips with a high level of integration and high performance at a relatively low level of power consumption.
"Our aim is to make Simputer a low cost alternative device to PCs, by which IT can reach the common man," said Manohar. "That's why it features touch screen and local language software interface."
Four trustees are from IISc and the remaining three from Encore. Vinay Deshpande, the founder CEO and MD of Encore, is the managing trustee of the Simputer Trust.
All that the trust is going to do on April 25 is to display about 10 Simputers and hold several demonstrations of them, at the JRD Tata Auditorium, National Institute for Advanced Studies, IISc, Bangalore. This is to indicate that the Simputer platform is ready for the next stage, namely, commercial manufacture and deployment.
In other words, Simputers will not be available in your neigbourhood computer store on April 26. Private companies will have to come forward to take the licenses for manufacturing Simputers.
The trust has liberally borrowed its philosophy from the concept of "free software" propounded by a worldwide group of software developers who have created a new paradigm for the development and deployment of such popular software as Linux and also benefited from pioneering work done by the Free Software Foundation.
The trust will still retain ownership over the basic platform so that it can continue to guide its development based on the philosophy of the Trust.
"The system software of the Simputer, since it is Linux based is under GPL," say the trustees.
"We have been working on a license similar to the GPL, but applicable to hardware. We realised, after considerable discussions, that hardware has significant differences that precludes the possibility of using a simple extension of the software GPL."
"We now have the first draft of the Simputer General Public License that we believe to be a practicable license which at the same time facilitates the rapid spread of Simputers."
"We invite comments from interested manufacturers and others on the SGP, which was drafted by Rahul Matthan, the legal counsel of the Simputer Trust."
The trust estimates that it will then take a company at least three months to start manufacturing these devices for general use.
May cost as little as Rs 9,000
The cost per piece cannot be exactly estimated now. The designers believe that when the volume of production touches 50,000 pieces, the cost should come down to Rs 9,000 per piece. Until then, it is will be much higher.
Actually, four beta Simputers have been doing demonstration rounds already. Now, new boxes have been made with improved tooling.
"The initial Simputer model will have a rudimentary Kannada front-end interface," say the trustees. " We expect that the demonstration vehicle will result in large-scale deployment through governmental and non-governmental agencies throughout the country. Costs will automatically fall as volumes pick up."
Can you attach a keyboard to this device, and enter text? There are two options on the base Simputer for entering text: one is a soft keyboard, that can be brought up on the touch screen and you poke at it to enter one character at a time.
The second option is to use a novel character entry software called tap-a-tap which is similar in spirit to graffiti, but quite distinct.
If you need to enter a lot of text using the Simputer, you may be able to attach a USB keyboard, but the Simputer is definitely not intended to be a cheap, mass data-entry device.
This device will have a simple to use browser for accessing the Internet through one of several connectivity options. Since it has a built-in modem, the modem provides the primary interface to an ISP.
In fact, it might be a good idea to tie up with ISPs to bundle several hours of access in the basic package.
Ease of use
Ease of use has to be an important guiding principle if this device is to gain a substantial measure of popularity. A low-cost version of this device may be targeted to the home user, whereas a slightly higher functionality version can be designed for use in cyber kiosks where people can come in and surf at their convenience.
The Simputer can also be used in schools to allow them to offer Web access to students at relatively low-cost. It can also leverage the pervasiveness of telephone lines and enable users to enjoy a new level of services from their net service providers.
This could be in areas as diverse as Web-enabled email access, home banking, home shopping, educational services and new forms of entertainment.
Micheal L Best, research scientists at MIT's famous Media Lab, told rediff.com some time ago that his centre was working on developing a similar device which should cost $50 apiece.
So the Simputer is certainly not a unique project globally, although it is certainly new and special to India.
Best felt that even that was too high a cost for the target user of such a device, which is basically a poor, rural farmer.
But will it be made in huge volumes to make it cheaper?
The Simputer, in US dollars, should work out to not less than $200. The real test now will be to see whether enough companies find it viable to come forward, take licenses and attempt to manufacture. The even bigger question will be whether they will soon be made in sufficiently large volumes to make them truly cost-effective.
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