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Mon, Apr 12, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Indian professors devise cheaper hand-held

INTERNET ACCESS The developers hope their Amida Simputer computer will help bridge the digital gap between rich and poor


Hand-held computers have got cheaper as a new indigenously designed device aimed at helping more of India's 1 billion population join the Internet revolution is hitting the market.

A team of Indian professors at PicoPeta Simputers have come up with the Amida Simputer -- a simple hand-held device designed to provide on-the-go technology to buyers.

It is the first Indian-designed hand-held computer and one of its most appealing features is its price. The Simputer's three versions cost between 9,950 rupees (US$216) and 19,950 rupees. Competitors' models cost upwards of US$300.

"The aim is to bridge the digital divide and the divide between the rich and poor," said Swami Mano-har, chief executive officer of Bangalore-based PicoPeta.

The team first dreamed up the idea for the Simputer three years ago to help low-income Indians join the Internet age.

But development was hampered by lack of investment and by a dearth of interest from computer manufacturers.

Then state-owned Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), a firm that specializes in making military electronic equipment, stepped into the breach.

"The current plan is to produce 10,000 units a month," said BEL chairman and managing director Y. Gopala Rao.

"Next year, if the sales go up to 50,000 [a month], we'll increase the capacity of the plant," he said.

Manohar, a professor at the Indian Institute of Science, said the firm had spent "considerable time" determining the device's price, adding designers were afraid to make it too cheap for fear people would think it was of poor quality.

"The poor think when it's priced cheaply it's of inferior quality and the people who are better off do not want to buy what is meant for the poor," Manohar said.

The makers came up with the name "Simputer" as an amalgamation of "simple computer," while the word "Amida" is derived from the Sanskrit root amita, meaning unbound.

It comes with software to allow users to type notes and letters in English as well as in two other Indian languages, Hindi and Kannada, with more languages to be added soon.

Hindi is India's official language while Kannada is spoken in Karnataka state, which technology hub Bangalore is the capital.

Manohar said his Simputer was meant for individual applications and "anything one can scribble [on the hand-held device] and then e-mail."

"It works with a range of devices such as printers and digital cameras," Manohar said. "If you think words can't capture your emotions then you can record your voice and e-mail it."

To cut costs, the device, which goes on sale this month, works on the open source software Linux.

The basic model has a monochrome screen, a 206MHz processor and 64MB of memory. It also features an internal microphone, speakers and a battery that runs for six hours. It can be connected to a landline or a wireless phone for Internet browsing.

Manohar said that future versions would have faster access as well as more memory.

India's President Abdul Kalam, who made his name as a rocket scientist and is a staunch supporter of open-source software, formally launched the product via teleconference from New Delhi last month, saying it could play a role in providing government services to citizens.

He told the design team he was "very happy that there has been a design of a simple computer which is ready for the commercial market."

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