BANGALORE, India While western companies have been searching for the "next big thing" in computing, researchers and a company in India have unveiled a cheap pocket device they hope will introduce computing to users in developing countries.
Dubbed Simputer, for simple computer, the sub-$200 pocket computer is the result of two and a half years of research and design work conducted at the prestigious India Institute of Science here, in collaboration with Encore Software Ltd., also based here. Simputer can support applications ranging from electronic cash transactions to Internet browsing, and is designed so several people can share the machine even users who can't read.
The Simputer Trust, a non-profit group that backed the Simputer's development, opted to bypass the Windows operating system after determining that it was unsuitable for a low-cost machine. Instead, the prototype Simputer runs open-source Linux and uses Intel Corp.'s 200-MHz StrongARM SA-1100 RISC processor.
The 1998 Bangalore Declaration on Information Technology was the inspiration behind the Simputer, said Vinay Deshpande, the managing trustee of The Simputer Trust and chairman of Encore Software. The Declaration sought the development and wide use of computers that bridge the so-called "digital divide."
"The unveiling of the prototype is a dream come true," Deshpande said.
Deshpande, who is also president of India's Manufacturers' Association for Information Technology, said one aim behind the Simputer's development is to avoid "blind transplants of information technology to developing nations." Hence, designers bypassed the Wintel platform and made the Simputer a sharable device. Using smart cards, different individuals can use the same device: a requirement in developing nations, where low per-capita incomes make it difficult for individuals to own PCs. The Simputer is rugged, dust resistant and operates on three AAA batteries or on electric current.
Given the high illiteracy rates in developing countries, the device uses images and sound as primary outputs and touch as its primary input. It employs Unicode, and so it supports multilingual text along with text-to-speech capabilities.
Developers said the Simputer is somewhere between a personal digital assistant and a PC, given its power, storage capacity, display size and smart-card-based connectivity.
Designers also held down costs by shunning Graffiti, Xerox Corp.'s patented single-stroke encoding method featured on Palm Pilots, and thereby avoiding royalty payments, said Vijay Chandru of the Indian Institute of Science's Computer Science and Automation Department. .
The Simputer also has a built-in MP3 player and offers short-range wireless data transfer. For now, Simputer uses the Chimera browser.
To spread the technology to developing countries, The Simputer Trust is charging OEMs a one-time licensing fee of $25,000 for the Simputer. Elsewhere, the fee is $250,000. Licensing terms require the relinquishing of rights to product innovations based on the Simputer one year after commercialization.
The Simputer Trust predicted prices for the device will fall below the sub-$200 level once mass production begins. Three companies have already shown interest in manufacturing the device, including picoPETA Simputers, which was started by founding members of The Simputer Trust.
The Trust expects two million Simputers to be sold by the end of 2002. The first products should be available by the end of this year.
Observers said the Simputer holds promise for bringing low-cost computing to poor countries. "My research leads me to conclude that the Simputer is a world-class, cutting-edge innovation, a technological breakthrough designed specifically to facilitate worthy social and human purposes," said Kenneth Keniston, Andrew Mellon Professor of Human Development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.