[Fsf-friends] FEATURE: Simputer close to finish-line, looksout for right software

Frederick Noronha fred@bytesforall.org
Sun, 23 Jun 2002 13:29:40 +0530 (IST)

Simputer gets close to finish-line, on lookout for the right software

By Frederick Noronha

PANAJI (Goa), June 24: Indian computer scientists and technologists are
close to the finish-line for completing an ambitious project of making a
"commonman's computer". But much of their chances for success depend on
being able to find sufficient buyers and create useful applications.

Called the 'Simputer', this low-priced but versatile computing device is to
be priced at between Rs 10,500 to Rs 23,000 -- depending on the computing
power made available in different models. 

"We expect (Goa-based modem and motherboard manufacturer) D-Link to produce
Simputers in quantity in a few months time," announced Encore Software
chairman and CEO Vinay L Deshpande, speaking to businessmen and software
enthusiasts at a Goa Chambers of Commerce and Industry, here. This was
followed by an interaction with the local LUG, or Linux Users' Group. 

The Simputer has caught the attention of the nation, and many overseas too,
because it promises to take computing to the commonman. Not just because of
its lower price but also because of its promise to be usable even by an
illiterate using its text-to-speech conversion capabilities.

In the year 2001, the Simputer project raced past products like Apple's
slick new IPAC computers and Windows XP to be selected as the New York
Times' technology selections. 

"We have so far focussed on getting the Simputer into people's hands. Now we
have the Simputer software development toolkit ready," says Deshpande.

On the ncoretech.com site, a small under 200-kilobytes package enables any
software developer with the skills to launch into developing their own
'apps' (or applications) to make the Simputer an even more powerful tool.

Many of the current Simputer applications -- particularly the PIMs (personal
information-manager software) -- are not as feature-loaded as could have
been. These are basically to demonstrate the capabilities of the Simputer,
admits Deshpande.

Mass-production, though some months behind deadline, is possibly shortly and
prototypes are already doing the rounds. Much now depends on whether there
are sufficient numbers of buyers to reduce the cost of the product.

Simputer is finding itself a number of different application, ranging from
sending e-mail to playing MP3 music files and video clippings, billing
applications, rural banking, Indian language solutions, e-education,
e-governance, small business accounting, insurance policy advisor, etc.

"Simputer could also be adapted to high-end uses, like FedEx-type document
tracking (e-logistics), sales automation or as a tool for the visually
impaired in combination with a low-cost video camera and optical character
recognition software. We got a suggestion for this from Italy," says

Using the GNU/Linux model of software developing, the 'specs'
(specifications) are thrown up, and anyone interested can create software
required. This could either be put out for free for all users, or priced.

One text-to-speech software (that converts the written-word into speech,
helping illiterates) is a priced product. But it is an improvement on the
earlier design, and allows the 'text' to be read out in a man's voice, or a
woman's or child's. One could even adapt the pitch of the voice.

"Currently we have about 100-150 Simputers in operation. By August, there
should be 1000-1500. This would help further development (of software).
Several hundred software developers have also downloaded the toolkit," says

Being a GNU/Linux based project -- modeled on a non-proprietorial form of
'free' software production -- this product too depends a lot on volunteers
lending their skills to develop applications. 'Free' software does not mean
that all come without a price; some could be free, others could be priced.

But the prices of the software are expected to be reasonable.

"Since this is a Rs 10,000 product, you can't expect to sell software at Rs
5,000. We expect most applications would cost between Rs 25 to 100 each
(with a few more comprehensive ones costlier). Money would be made on the
volumes sold," said Deshpande.

This product uses a GTK-based toolkit, and Java could also be used for
programming. Deshpande says large software conglomerates like Microsoft had
shown a keen interest in porting the Simputer to their products, but this
had been "so far resisted" as the project is based on the 'open source'
software model of volunteers collaboratively building solutions.

Interestingly, even the Simputer's hardware design is 'open source'. Anyone
can download this from the Internet, and implement it for 'personal use'.

But anyone wanting to go in for 'commercial' production and sale of the
Simputers has to pay a one-time licence fee of US$25,000 for the developing
world and ten times that sum for the developed world.

There is an unusual twist to this too -- anyone innovating on the Simputer
design gets a monopoly over that improved design for a year of commercial
production, after which the innovation has to itself be put out in public
domain. This rewards innovation and also keeps the door open for further
design-improvements evolving.

This is perhaps the first product internationally that has gone in for an
'open' design model, which has so far been mainly used in the software
world, quite successfully. 

Deshpande said interest was being evinced in the Simputer from countries as
far apart as Morocco, Singapore, Nigeria, Brazil and elsewhere. (ENDS) 

Simputer		www.simputer.org
Simputer Mailing List	www.groups.yahoo.com/group/simputer/
PicoPeta		www.picopeta.com
Swami Manohar   	manohar@picopeta.com
Vinay L Deshpande	vinay@ncoretech.com
NCoreTech		www.ncoretech.com (Simputer developer kit here)