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Monday, September 3, 2001
Lead Article

Accessing rural areas with Simputer
Dinesh C. Sharma

THESE days one hears of computers everywhere — from the Prime Minister’s office to a remote town in Tamil Nadu or Gujarat. Even states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are speaking the IT-tongue. But unfortunately, the present scenario is bit a skewed. It has a strong urban bias, and a tilt in favour of the English-speaking people. While software programs are being developed in various Indian languages, they are not as pervasive as Windows or the Internet Explorer. To be a part of the so-called IT revolution, one must have some rudimentary knowledge of computers and the English language. In addition, he or she should be able to afford a PC or at least afford an access to it. If that is so, this revolution will also bypass the majority of illiterate or semi-literate poor Indians like all other previous revolutions.

Palm-tops, mobile banking, e-learning, e-commerce, online weather and so on — these are some of the catch phrases that are often used in the context of the much hyped e-economy of today. But even in urban India, some of these applications of information technology (IT) and the Internet are far from becoming a part of the routine. In this situation, if someone says that all this and much more will be possible in rural areas very soon, it may sound a bit far-fetched or even absurd. The cost of acquiring devices like palmtops is very high and access to the personal computer or PC is limited to only a handful. In addition, there are basic problems like lack of electricity in rural areas and cultural opposition to any new technology.


The cost of access to IT has been high in India so far, because the focus of all IT activity has been the Personal Computer or the PC. Despite the fall in the PC prices, we are still to have a computer that costs less than Rs 25,000 or so — which is something that an average Indian cannot afford. A group of scientists at the Computer Sciences Department of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has developed a new device that breaks this price barrier for the first time. They have come up with a low-cost Internet access device (not a PC) that may be available for just Rs 10,000. It could go down further if volumes pick up.

It is called a Simputer or Simple Computer. The Simputer is a low-cost PC, though it may not look like a computer. It does not have a keyboard nor a huge television like screen or monitor. It has small touch sensitive screen, and the user is able to write a message using a pen-like device. No need to press keys and move the mouse from one icon to another. Just use your fingers. Future versions may also work on voice. No need to touch the screen, just speak to it and it will do the rest. The Simputer uses free software from the open Linux platform.

The Union Minister for Human Resource Development and Science and Technology, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, with a Simputer at a press conference held recently.
The Union Minister for Human Resource Development and Science and Technology, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, with a Simputer at a press conference held recently.

Unlike a PC — which is personal to its user — the Simputer is targeted as a shared computing device for many users in a community. A local community such as the village panchayat or the village school, or a kiosk, or even a shopkeeper should be able to give this device out to individuals for a specific period of time and then pass it on to others in the community. This requires the device to be personalised for individual use on a changing basis. This has been achieved by making Simputer work with "smart cards". A user’s individual profile can be stored on a SmartCard, which he can carry around with him. Once inserted into the SmartCard Interface, the Simputer will read the profile from the SmartCard and also update changes, if any.

The proponents of Simputer say it can be used for a variety of applications in rural areas. Its main applications could be in micro-banking, agricultural information, access to weather information, distant learning, health data collection and simple Internet browsing. The Simputer can be an ideal mobile platform for a complete, secure micro-banking solution. For example, several small cooperative banks in Maharashtra are already providing services to their rural clients at their door-steps. They carry around a small portable device with a transaction printer, which enables the client to transact with the bank and obtain a receipt directly. Simputer can do this job much more efficiently and in a secure manner.

If successful, Simputer can solve a lot of our problems related to IT access in poor, developing countries. The Simputer Trust — a non-profit body floated by its developers — plans to give out the technology for a nominal fee to anybody who is interested in the world and already enquiries are pouring in from Peru and the Philippines.

But a large issue is what can devices like Simputer do when basic infrastructure and utilities don’t exist in our rural areas. What can an excellent application like micro-banking using Simputer do, when we don’t have a micro-finance system working on ground in villages (cooperatives of Maharashtra and Gujarat are an exception)? What use is the cheap Internet access through Simputer in rural areas when there is no relevant content available on the net for rural folks? Even if you are able to generate excellent health data using Simputers, what is the use if the government babus don’t know hat to do with this data?

Certainly, it is no fault of the Simputer or its developers. They have given us an excellent device. It is upto all of us how to use it. It is a classic case of a technology looking for applications. This question is not limited just to Simputer, but to IT per se. The recently released Human Development Report 2001 gives some useful insights. The report has come out with a "Technology Achievement Index", based on parameters like number of telephones, electricity consumption, Internet connections, patents granted and mean years of schooling. In this list, India’s rank is a rather respectable 63. Contrast this with India’s rank of 115 in the Human Development Index, which is based on criteria like life expectancy, literacy rates and per capita income.

And Bangalore gets the fourth slot among the 46 technology hubs identified in the report. Bangalore shares this position with San Francisco and Austin in the USA and Taiwan capital Taipei. It is ahead of New York, Montreal, Cambridge, Dublin, Tokyo, Paris, Melbourne, Chicago, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore among others. This and the Technology Index ranking may provide some psychological comfort to people. Mobile phone penetration in some of the smaller towns in Kerala is as high as some of the developed countries in Europe. Clearly the technology ranking and the human development ranking do not correlate with each other. We do not know what impact a high technology ranking can have on the development index. It will be worthwhile to look at the relationship between the two. As it is clear from India’s case, a reasonably good technology ranking does not mean a good level of development.

There is no substitute for development. We need roads first, we need primary health centres, we need schools in villages, we need an equitable food distribution and we need jobs for our people. Let there be no deviation from the core goal of development. IT or ICT can at best be an enabler, they can help us achieve our development goals faster and in an efficient manner. In this context, Simputer is a welcome move.

But Simputer cannot work in a vacuum. Even if its cost comes down to Rs 1000, one tenth of what is projected today, there may not be in any takers. It will still remain an expensive toy for the villager. Unless we are able to develop relevant content, develop applications around existing operations in rural areas and work with developmental agencies operating in rural areas, it cannot be made useful. For this, collaborative work between government agencies, NGOs and educational bodies and administrators is required at various levels. Scientists have delivered a new device. It is upto the society to absorb and make it useful. Regretfully, the government establishment — represented by the science and technology minister who proudly presented Simputer to the national media recently — has no plans right now in this direction.

— Grassroots Feature Network



Some frequently asked questions on Simputers

Is the Simputer like a PC?

No. The Simputer is ‘NOT’ a personal computer. It could however be a pocket computer.

Is the Simputer like a Palm?

Again no! The Simputer is much more powerful than a Palm. For example, in terms of screen size (320x240), memory capabilities (32MB RAM) and the OS (GNU/Linux).

How do I enter text? Can I attach a keyboard?

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 graffitti, but quite distinct (no patent infringement:-). But if you insist on entering tons of text using the Simputer, you may be able to attach a USB keybaord. We don’t recommend the Simputer as a mass data-entry device.

What features set the Simputer apart from other handhelds?

The smart card reader in the Simputer. The Information Markup Language (IML) that is (amongst other things) smart card aware. The use of extensive audio in the form of text-to-speech and audio snippets.

Can I buy a Simputer from the trust?

The trust does not manufacture the simputer. It will license it to manufacturers.

When will the Simputer be available?

If all goes well, by March 2002 you should be able to buy one of them.

What will the Simputer cost?

We expect the Simputer to cost about Rs 9000 when the volumes are upwards 100,000 units.

What does MAIT have to do with the Simputer?

Nothing! Except that one of our trustees happens to be the president of MAIT. Also, one of our trustees is a life member of the KSCA but the cricket association has nothing to do with the Simputer either :-)

What processor does the Simputer run on?

It runs on an Intel strong-arm chip. The chip is known for its low power consumption.

Can I create a Beowulf cluster using many Simputers?

You must be a /.er; in which case you know the answer!

What does the simputer run on?

Three AAA battries or off the mains. It can also use rechargeable batteries, but the charger is not built in.

What is IML?

IML stands for Information Markup Language, though it could well be an Illiterate Markup Language. The language has been created to suit the unique needs of the Simputer. The markup itself is however, XML based.

Another Markup Language? Why not HTML?

(a) Because HTML is not currently as versatile as IML.

(b) Because we don’t control the standards and hence cannot make the necessary changes tailored to our requirements

(c) And IML is an XML application, and so does follow the Internet standards.

What about Javascript?

Doh! What about it?

(Source: www.simputer.org/simputer/faq)