[Fsf-friends] Simputer... changes a viewpoint

Frederick Noronha fred@bytesforall.org
Fri, 16 Aug 2002 08:11:54 +0530 (IST)

Permit me to forward a posting from the Solaris mailing-list in
Delhi. Perhaps GNU/Linux enthusiasts could also look at ways in which we
could enhance our involvement in this GNU/Linux-based project. FN

---------- Forwarded message ----------


From=20the San Jose Mercury News.  At LinuxWorld in San Francisco a number=
of interesting projects were presented yesterday including Open=20
Knowledge Network, the Brazilian volkscomputers, and  the following=20
one--the Simputer.

Langberg is a critical enthusiast when it comes to consumer items. He's=20
not a development expert. A good opening line to keep local high tech=20
folks reading this piece!


Posted on Wed, Aug. 14, 2002

Simple computer helps close digital divide
By Mike Langberg
Mercury News

I've always been a digital-divide cynic, suspecting all the talk about=20
transforming the lives of poor people through Internet access to be=20
self-serving narcissism from Silicon Valley technologists seeking a=20
justification for making themselves rich.

Vinay L. Deshpande has changed my mind.

Deshpande, a Stanford-educated software entrepreneur in Bangalore,=20
India, is the driving force behind the Simputer, a handheld device that=20
resembles a Palm personal digital assistant.

The Simputer (www.simputer.org), which costs from $175 to $375 depending=20
on features, is designed for impoverished rural villages in India and=20
other under-developed parts of the world. This isn't a cure for hunger=20
or disease, but Deshpande makes a convincing argument for how the=20
Simputer could make life better for people living far from the=20
technology fast lane.

If you're struggling to feed your family on an income equal to a few=20
dollars a day, you don't need access to Amazon.com or eBay. What you do=20
need are the latest commodity prices for your crops if you're a farmer,=20
or accurate weather reports if you fish from a small boat, or a reliable=20
way to gather medical data if you're a rural health worker.

These are things the sturdy Simputer can do at a far lower cost than=20
temperamental and fragile laptop computers.
Deshpande, who spoke Wednesday at the LinuxWorld trade show in San=20
Francisco, got the idea for the Simputer at a family wedding near Mumbai=20
in November 1998, where he met the owner of a small community bank.

The banker had a problem: He operates what is called a ``pygmy deposit=20
scheme,'' where independent agents travel to isolated villages to=20
collect deposits and make payments as small as one rupee, or about two=20
cents. The agents give paper receipts, and sometimes cheat the bank by=20
turning in altered copies of the deposit slips listing smaller amounts.=20
Catching such cheaters often takes days or weeks.

The banker wanted a handheld device costing no more than $200 with an=20
attached receipt printer that agents could use to collect deposit data,=20
downloading the information by phone to the bank's computers at the end=20
of the day. This device wouldn't eliminate theft by the agents, but=20
they'd have a hard time disappearing with more than one day's worth of=20

Deshpande, 55, assembled a team of academics from the Indian Institute=20
of Science and engineers from his company, Encore Software=20
(www.ncoretech.com), both based in Bangalore. The group quickly realized=20
any device created for the banker could solve many other problems in=20
many countries.

The Simputer is designed to be easy to operate, reliable, rugged and to=20
run on easily obtained AA batteries. There's a slot for sliding in smart=20
cards, which cost less than $1 and can be given to every person in a=20
village for storing their personal information. A built-in modem makes=20
it possible to collect information and send out messages through the=20
Internet. Villages beyond the reach of phone lines can send and receive=20
data through the smart cards.

To hold down costs, the Simputer runs a slimmed-down version of the free=20
Linux operating system -- eliminating royalty payments that would be=20
required for the Palm or Microsoft PocketPC operating systems used in=20
today's PDAs.
Deshpande and his colleagues also developed visual icons and=20
text-to-speech feedback so that even illiterate users could benefit from=20
the Simputer.

Encore Software began producing the first run of Simputers this month at=20
a contract manufacturing plant in Bangalore; another production line is=20
due to start up next month in Singapore. The Simputer isn't available=20
yet in the United States, but Deshpande is talking with several=20
potential distributors and expects to have a deal in place by year-end.

Meanwhile, the Simputer Trust is willing to license its hardware and=20
software designs to any interested manufacturer for a one-time fee of=20
$25,000 to companies in the developing world and $250,000 to companies=20
in the developed world.

As word of the Simputer has spread, Deshpande is hearing more ideas for=20
how his creation could be used.

The post office in India, for example, is considering giving the=20
Simputer to mail carriers who handle money orders. A villager could send=20
money through a smart card, plugged into the mail carrier's Simputer,=20
for delivery to a relative on the other side of the country, downloaded=20
to the recipient's smart card. This would eliminate sending money orders=20
through the mail, where they are often lost or stolen.

Health care agencies in South Africa want to develop a small ultrasound=20
monitor that could be plugged into the Simputer for tracking fetal=20
development among pregnant women in rural settlements.

The Indian government is also interested in the Simputer for collecting=20
reliable and timely information on agricultural production, a process=20
now bogged down by inaccurate and slowly gathered paper documents.

Asked to summarize his hopes for the Simputer, Deshpande spins around=20
and points to a logo printed on the back of his official Simputer Trust=20
T-shirt: ``Radical simplicity for universal access.''

There's no guarantee, of course, the Simputer will succeed. Even if it=20
does, technology alone can't fix all the problems causing poverty.
But I found Deshpande to be uplifting. The technology revolution, in the=20
end, really could help everyone on Earth make better lives for=20
Contact Mike Langberg at mike@langberg.com or (408) 920-5084.
=A9 2001 siliconvalley and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
Steve Cisler
4415 Tilbury Drive
San Jose, Callifornia 95130
http: home.inreach.com/cisler

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