Simputer, Hovering between Hope and Impatience
Sitting in the palm of my hand, the Simputer, emerging from the tech city of Bangalore, India, has generated a mix of hope and pessimism that few hardware products from India ever have. But will the Simputer work as promised?
The Simputer is a simple, inexpensive, multilingual GNU/Linux-based computing device. Models of it already are making the rounds. In fact, Media Lab Asia, which functions out of the Indian city of Mumbai, has placed orders for 200 Simputers. And the search is underway for how to build suitable applications for Simputer-users.
This computing device has garnered interest from outside India and other third-world countries. For example, a German man who previewed the device wrote on the Simputer board that his "first impression is very good. Very good programming style and documentation."
Not surprisingly, after years of attention and headlines, even when on the drawing-board, the Simputer teams' fatigue is beginning to show. While the finish-line seems close for some, for others, disappointment over not meeting an on-sale target date of fourth quarter 2001 is further proof that the product is vaporware.
On the Yahoogroups! mailing-list set up for the Simputer project, over a thousand members hopefully monitor the progress. But the inability of techies--especially techies from this part of the globe--to explain things to a non-technical audience has left everyone wondering about exactly what is going on.
Some months from now, we'll know who's right. What's at stake, though, is not only a promised product, but a valiant battle to drastically shift the debate over what role IT should play in India.
The Simputer project has helped make the point that affordable solutions for countries like India will have to come from those countries themselves. It also has made clear that Indians have the skill and talent, if not the optimism, to develop such a product..
The story of the Simputer is not simply a matter of price, though this is an important issue, and whether it could meet its promised production schedule. Many other vital issues have come up. But while the Simputer experiment is being watched closely across the globe, a certain amount of impatience is visible from within India.
In early March 2002, Reuters reported that the low-cost, hand-held computer developed by seven Indian engineers to take the Internet to rural masses would start rolling out in May. Originally expected to cost $200, it would now cost $50 more, as stated by Vinay Deshpande, chief executive of Bangalore-based Encore Software. In addition, some Indian critics of the Simputer questioned whether the product would click with its audience at all.
Much of the Simputer's fate depends on what the final price turns out to be. Many of its advantages are premised on the fact that it would cost about one-third the price of a PC and about the same price as a colour TV set. If buyers could be convinced it's a useful tool, the Simputer could reach millions of people who previously were untouched by computing devices.
Prof. Swami Manohar, CEO of the Bangalore-based PicoPeta Simputers Pvt Ltd, told me that progress is at a hectic pace these days. "The primary challenge is funding. However, we are hopeful of solving that problem. The good news is with the Simputer licensing model, there are now two companies competing to provide Simputers: PicoPeta and Encore. So there is now a challenge to keep prices down and improve quality," he said.
PicoPeta's first field trial and first funded project were expected to begin in July. Manohar says that they "will be deploying about 75 Simputers, one per panchayat, in the district of Mahasamund. This project is funded by the South Asia Foundation and is actively supported by the state government."
DeepRoot Linux CEO Abhas Abhinav argues that one needs to understand the Simputer's main features in order to see the full scope of the project. Those features include text-to-speech synthesis in Indian languages, a pen-based input method (called tap-a-tap), portable Palm-sized footprint, Linux powered, open hardware licensing and the smart-card interface, among others. Abhinav notes that "the intended use of these features (and hence the Simputer) is in rural areas.... The text-to-speech features, portable size and low power requirements are meant to be of immense use to people in these areas." Other suggested application are for micro-banking applications, rural commerce and micro-credit applications.
For all of its promise, Abhinav points out the Simputer would cost Rs 9000 only in quantities of "hundred thousands". So, if scale is not attained, he feels the Simputer's utility is likely to be hit by its high price and its low availability of software.
But he does believe that the Simputer has an edge over other Palmtops. "Palmtops can't compute in Indian languages because they don't have text-to-speech interfaces for Indian languages", he notes. The Simputer team, however, does have a lot of focus on low-cost, mass-market computing--more than any other project or initiative. This could translate into the spawning of many more similar projects, resulting in greater innovation in this area.
Abhinav does wish the Simputer developers had spent more time and money convincing others to design software for the Simputer. He suggests that more of the investment could have gone into usable interfaces, with less emphasis on specialised hardware. But he feels scalability issues of the Simputer could pose problems, as "there is little scope for further hardware expansion, and software is limited by this as well." He continues:
Simputer's utility, therefore, is dependent upon how efficiently the Simputer group can turn the technological value of the product into something tangible for the masses as well... what we have today is a great technological base for doing these wonderful things, but no really usable applications to use it.
Guntupalli Karunakar, who works on GNU/Linux-based Indian language solutions, argues that the Simputer has potential as a shared community device through its smart-card interface. "But it all depends on the number and variety of applications that can be run on it", he says.
One reason I think that has prevented Simputer coming into market early on is because major components (processor, memory, LCD display, etc.) are not easily available in local markets, and have to be imported. That too, in bulk. So I can't build one of my own even if I have the money. If the raw materials were available locally, we would probably have had DIY Simputer kits if not complete Simputers.
Karunakar voices concern over the fact that because no immediate will be seen, existing players really don't want to take the risk or waste time and money on it. "They either find the product uninteresting or are waiting for the small players (read: Picopeta/Encore ) to take it to the critical mass level, If it succeeds then they will jump in with all their might", he argues.
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