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Wed, Sep 12, 2001 - Page 19 News List

Indian scientists build a cheap handheld computer

A group of scientists has invented a system that costs just US$320. It is hoped the price of the Linux-based system will eventually drop to US$190 -- still expensive in this poverty-stricken country


Professor Vijay Chandru of the Indian Institute of Science, left, displays the mother board of the Simputer as Vinay Deshpande, CEO of Encore software, shows the Simputer prototype.


Some of the world's brightest technologists hail from this south Indian city, burnishing Bangalore's reputation as the Silicon Valley of the East.

Yet for most Indians, whose average income is US$450 a year, a computer is a foreign word. Ownership is a distant dream.

A group of seven Indian computer scientists think they can help.

They've built a simple, inexpensive handheld computer -- they call it the Simputer -- that in the words of co-developer Vinay Deshpande "could truly take the benefits of information technology to the underserved of the world."

Fewer than 1 percent of India's more than 1 billion people have personal computers.

More than 40 percent of the population is illiterate, and one in four Indians lives in abject poverty.

The idea for the Simputer, which is slated for launch by year's end, emerged from the India Institute of Science and Encore Software Ltd after both were asked by the government to devise ways to deliver information technology's benefits to rural India, where some 75 percent of the country's population lives.

Inspired by the transistor radio, which opened an information spigot to India's villages in the 1970s, the team designed a 7.5cm by 12.5cm telecommunications-ready machine.

They envision Indian farmers using it to get on the Internet via public telephones and check produce prices, government tax and land records.

Although it was designed with Indians in mind, the hope is that the Simputer will be attractive to governments, banks, relief agencies and schools in other developing countries.

"It is a big boost for Indian pride," said Deshpande, the chairman of Encore Software, one of two companies that hold the manufacturing license.

"It proves what we've been saying all along: That we can do it here. This is 100 percent India."

Swami Manohar, another of the developers and a computer science professor at IIS, said the Simputer's initial price would be around US$320. Eventually, they intend to sell it in volume at US$190.

That's still expensive for most Indians.

So the Simputer would accommodate smart cards, which each cost about US$4.25. That would enable farmers, villages or schools to share a single device, and use individual smart cards to store data.

The Simputer runs on a version of the Linux operating system, whose source code is free on the Internet. It has a 320-by-240-pixel monochrome display, is powered by a 200Mhz StrongArm processor and has a hard polymer shell.

The current prototype has 32MB of random access memory, runs on three AAA nickel metal hydride batteries, includes a built-in speaker, a microphone and a telephone jack, and USB and smart card connectors. Into the software bundle are a built-in Internet browser, e-mail program, MP3 player and a modem.

Because it runs on Linux, programmers working through the nonprofit Simputer Trust can improve on the machine's codes and capabilities. On their Web site, the developers say the trust aims to promote the Simputer "as an evolving platform for social change.''

Since many of its users would be illiterate, the Simputer has text-to-speech capability and voicemail.

It is designed to break down written words into basic sounds, then put them back together and speak out in English, Hindi, Tamil and Kannada.

Users can also enter text on a soft screen keyboard, one character at a time, or with a stylus using a handwriting recognition program the designers call "Tapatap"' -- (akin to Graffiti in the Palm OS).

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