Simputer, Hovering between Hope and Impatience

by Frederick Noronha

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.

Lowering Costs

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."

The Basics

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.

Most Haven't Seen One

Attention to the Simputer is coming from far and wide, although the lack of hardware in the market mean that few people actually have seen a Simputer.

Dietrich Mueller-Falcke is a German researcher who did his PhD on the use of ICTs in small businesses in India. He presented the Simputer as an "innovative idea to bring information to the poor" at the annual meeting of Euforic, a European Development Policy group, that was attended by the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid.

Comparing a Simputer with a PDA would be unfair, he feels, because with a PDA one still would need to attach a mobile phone to get on-line. But, he adds that the Simputer needs to hit the market speedily, "because the PDA market is developing rapidly and with the advent of GPRS and UMTS in Europe, and new functionalities soon will be added to these devices".

Bruce Girard, a researcher and coordinator of Comunica, a network specialising in the convergence of independent broadcasting and new media. is optimistic too. He notes:

The Simputer has design features that make it well-suited to be shared-use machine. The way that low-cost smartcards have been incorporated into the design, for example, means that, 1) your data is kept securely in your own card, rather than on a network, and 2) configuration settings are portable. This means that if you use the Simputer in the library, at school, in a public call booth or in another town, you will always have your own interface and data at hand.

This, he says, opens up new application potential in schools, medical facilities, public booths and so on.

Hardware Innovation?

Given this background, should a country like India go in for greater hardware innovation? Researcher Bruce Girard has no doubts that it should. He says, "India has a distinct set of problems that often are best addressed with distinct technology. Unlike many smaller countries, it has the human capital pool and the market to allow it to embark on technology paths that will serve its needs better than those imported from the US or Europe."

Girard contends that successful technologies developed for use in India also will help other less-industrialised countries that share the same infrastructural problems. Some who have long argued that India needs to find its own solutions to boost low-cost telephony, now say that the country simply has to go in for a greater degree of hardware innovation.

Ashhar Farhan, for one, strongly believes that India needs to go in for more hardware innovation, his critique of the Simputer approach notwithstanding. He says he would like to see "a completely GPLed microprocessor design that is scalable (like SUN's Sparc), open and free (like some legacy processor cores) and small (RISC-based), so that ordinary university students can afford to get some silicon from their pocket money". He adds, "The road to hardware innovation is necessarily through the Simputer. It is an exciting and important milestone in Indian IT history."

But Dr. Arun Mehta sees the situation differently. He is upset by the "unfortunate attitude" in India that expresses itself in some variation of the question, "If this is such a great idea, how come nobody else is doing it?" He says, "We seem to mistrust home-grown technology. In addition, our projects often don't have the financial backing for the long haul. The market in this country is small, and unless we immediately look at marketing on a global level (which needs tremendous marketing muscle), we're out of the picture."

Global Internet Policy Initiative managing director Eric S. Johnson argues that innovation in India has much to lose from "the lack of an infrastructure that would encourage an increase in communications capacity". Instead of the government trying to "milk the communication sector for revenue", opening up a local loop (wired or wireless), the 2.4-GHz frequency, VoIP, intercity dialing, mobiles and the like would yield rich returns.

So, all in all, has the Simputer been over-hyped? One supporter says that, compared to other IT news items. "I would say that there has not been enough press at all (internationally). Simputer is not only company or a specific computer--it is first and foremost an idea, a concept that needs as much press coverage and criticism as possible."

Abhas Abhinav of DeepRoot Linux says what favourable press there is has been well deserved. "At least the focus has shifted to low-cost computing for the masses. On that matter their objectives were clear and remarkable, as is much of their work", says Abhinav.

For the future, Prof. Manohar says PicoPeta currently is making progress along three fronts, keeping its focus as a Simputer solutions company:

  • Deployment of the Simputer platform: Extensive testing of the Simputer solutions in areas as diverse as citizen empowerment, education, microbanking, rural marketing and brand management for FMCG companies, etc. "These field trials will be leveraged to generate large demands for Simputer solutions", says Manohar.

  • Building alliances and partnerships: PicoPeta is building a strong ecosystem by means of partnerships and alliances. For example, Markel Foundation and GraffitiWorkz, both in the US, are targeting the e-book market and are interested in the Simputer.

  • Product and technology development: Improving the current product in terms of both price and performance, enhancing the feature set of the Simputer and building advanced versions. Several software tools, including improved IML browsers, IML content creation tools and synchronization of the Simputer with PCs, have been developed and will be tested out in the field trials.

Closely Watched

Even within South Asia, where neighbours often are often friends due to political differences, the Simputer experiment is being closely watched. M. Khalid Rahman, editor of Dawn Sciencedotcom, the weekly feature magazine of Dawn, Pakistan largest daily, is upbeat about the Simputer. He says, "the Simputer is basically a poor man's computer, and it provides all the basic functions of a computer while giving the price edge to the users."

Rahman argues that in all the SAARC countries, a special branch of "affordable" technology should be dedicated to developing affordable applications and innovations to suit the pocket of the common man. To this end, he believes the Simputer is "a landmark achievement, opening new vistas of affordable technology".

As Rahman points out, we in the subcontinent have been falling short of the promise of a number of IT-for-development projects because "our governments fail to think objectively, and our entrepreneurs are mainly interested in making money by all means, fair and unfair".

Swedish journalist and researcher, Kerstin Lundell, who was recently in India to study IT-for-development projects, says the Simputer seems like it would be a good tool for travelers in rural areas. She says its promised low cost would be one major attraction.

"Basically, I think it's great and I want it to work", said one US-based researcher, who has been following the potential of this IT-for-development project for a long time. With the skeptics cynical and the optimists ever-hopeful, it's anyone's guess how this promised wonder-product from India will shape up.

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist in Goa, India.

Load Disqus comments