India’s simple computer for the masses

BANGALORE: Like many companies worldwide, Indian mining group Dempo uses handheld computers to help it manage data about its business. 

But while executives in the United States might use a Hewlett-Packard Co iPaq or a top-of-the-line model from Palm Inc, the device Dempo uses to update its inventories is a home-grown product called the Simputer. 

“Earlier, it used to take us more than a week to compile and analyse details of the iron ore picked up by our trucks,” said M.R. Aravindan, a strategic planning official at Dempo which uses 80 Simputers for its operations in the coastal Goa state. 

The affordable handheld computer aimed at busting digital divide is gaining popularity in small towns and schools.

The Simputer looks similar to the better-known handhelds, and like them, is operated by tapping on its screen with a stylus. It can also connect to the Internet. 

But the Indian product's target market of rural users such as farmers and village officials could not be more different than the gadget-toting consumers who buy Palms. 

The Simputer was conceived by academics as a way of bridging the “digital divide” – bringing computers to the poor. 

The product was designed by a non-profit trust spearheaded by researchers from the Indian Institute of Science, and the trust licenses manufacturing to independent firms. 

Two years after a launch marred by marketing and funding concerns, the Simputer is spreading quietly into small towns and schools, as well as to business users such as Dempo. 

There are plans to put it on retailers' shelves across the country this year. 

“The orders are beginning to start coming in,” said Vinay Deshpande, chairman of Bangalore-based Encore Software Ltd, one of two companies licensed to make the computer. 

The Simputer – short for simple, inexpensive, multilingual computer – is intended to help the two-thirds of one billion Indians who live in rural areas. 

It is priced between US$195 and US$375 depending on features, cheaper than a top-end Palm or iPaq. 

The Simputer also allows several users, for example a village council, to share a single device by storing their data on interchangeable smart cards. 

It can connect to the Internet through fixed-line or wireless networks, allowing local governments and voluntary agencies to receive and transmit data such as farm prices. 

It also has a speech synthesiser that can read English and Indian texts, making computer use possible for the more than one third of Indians who are illiterate. 

Encore, meanwhile, is working with more than 50 independent developers on software for applications such as reading electricity meters through bar codes and analysing market data. 

The use of Linux and India's huge expertise in making software cheaply will keep down the price of applications. 

Encore is also talking to hardware firms for marketing tie-ups to put the Simputer on retail shelves across India by October. 

“We are ready to deploy the device in volumes but our major challenge is aggressive marketing,” Deshpande said. – Reuters  

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