Linux-based ‘Simputer’ Brings Low-Cost Tech to India

A Simple Inexpensive Mobile Computer or Simputer stands to bring the IT revolution to rural India.

Running on three AAA batteries and an Intel chip, the Simputer will boast a free Linux operating system, 32MB of RAM and 16MB of Flash memory. At a cost of only $200, this simple device (which resembles a hefty Palm) may well bring the e-revolution to India where a scant 2 million PC’s are currently distributed between a poverty stricken populace of nearly 1 billion.

Given that even $200 is too dear for an average Indian family, the Simputer’s makers are hoping to interest the Indian government into buying and distributing the machines at the village and district levels. To facilitate this end, the Simputer sports a smartcard reader that enables it to be used on a shared basis.
Retailing for between one to two dollars, most villagers, it is hoped, will be able to afford a smartcard. Villagers can then hypothetically rent the local Simputer at a minimal hourly charge and use their smartcards for storing and accessing personal information.

“Single ownership is a developed-country term — in a developing country like India, everything is shared,” said Swami Manohar, one of the masterminds behind the Simputer (and associate professor at the Indian Institute of Science).

As well as working within the realistic sphere of shared ownership, Manohar and his fellow developers have enabled their invention to understand several Indian languages through the use of a stored library of sounds and what Manohar jokingly refers to as ‘Illiterate Markup Language.’ “We have tried to make it intuitive and not mystifying to the rural end-user,” said Manohar who, alongside several other developers, came up with Information Markup Language in order to make the Simputer accessible even to illiterate users.
As such, the device will be able to convert text into speech, and read the desired information to the user.

To further the device’s utility, Manhore and his Bangalore-based team of seven professors and engineers have planned the Simputer with repeated use and longevity in mind.
“We have designed the device to continue to be useful over several years, like those 25-year-old radios that homes in India have,” he asserted.

The software and the hardware used in the machine are currently available for download. “By putting it on the Web we are hoping people from different parts of the country will look at it and modify the software to include their own language,” Manohar said.

The device is scheduled for Beta testing in August.

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