The dawn of people's computer: Simputer, But where is the light?
 

A commentary on Simputer, a remarkable project.

(This was earlier published by me at a different site, and is republished here from my archives, and so may differ slightly from the original. The original article is no longer available).

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"The key to bridging the digital divide is to have shared devices that permit truly simple and natural user interfaces based on sight, touch and audio."

This is one of the moto that started of a project called Simputer, to conceptualize, develop, manufacture and market a handheld computer for the masses.

Where it all started?

In 1998, an international seminar on IT for developing countries was held in Bangalore (as a part of Banglore.IT event). The convension members released a document (link:http://www.simputer.org/simputer/history/paper.pdf) detailing the need for a low cost computing device, and aimed at providing it for less than Rs 5000 per unit. The initial document was produced by Swami Manahor from IISc Banglore, and then became the base of establishing the Simputer foundation (link:www.simputer.org), which released a series of specifications for the architecture of Simputer starting from Octorber 2000. This has been later on commercialized by Bangalore based companies: Pico Peta Systems and Encore Software, but available at much higher rates than the one proposed in the original document.

The idea, the architecture, the openees

The idea being to create a low cost computing solution, immediately ruled out the proprietary world of Wintel platform. Apart from the cost of acquiring, the other important factor that simputer designiers have taken appropriate care of is the cost of running and maintainance. The inaccessible places where this device was targeted (like many parts of rural India), where availability of electricity and technical support is at premium, have braught in some brialliant design decisions to the simputer platform.

The first major decision was to make the platform open, probably the world's first complete hardware architecture specification to be covered under the GPL license, and then later modified to Simputer General Public License (SGPL). The complere hardware specifications including PCB layouts etc. can be obtained by registering at (link:http://www.simputer.org/simputer/downloads/hardware/downloadform.php).

The current design is based on a 32-bit Strong Arm RISC processors at 200-206 MHz, with 32-64 MB of DRAM, expandable flash memory, a touch screen (mono /  color) LCD display, USB 1.1 support, Speaker and Mic. The simputer is powered by 3 AAA type NiMh batteries or rechargable Li-ion batteries that give upto 10 hours work time with single recharge!

The software layer of Simputer is based on GNU/Linux with the kernel version 2.4.x (more feature rich 2.6.x kernel seems not yet ported on this platform) and a number of wonderful programs, including sketchpad, doodles (for writing with a stylus in any applications, Taptap), an mp3 player, an web browser (IMLI), facility to connect to CDMA/GSM enabled cell phones to connect to internet etc. make a complete computing device. Loads of Indian language support, text-to-speech (with indian language support, Dhvani) etc. make this device an unbetable platform for mass computing device.

The commertilized version of this device called the Amida Simputer (link:http://amidasimputer.com/) contains some innovative feature that migh be only seen in some Hollywood movies. Of these the most notable feature is an accelometer to change screen behaviour and act as a gesture based input method. For instance to zoom a picture on your simputer, you just have to take it closer to your eyes!! If you flip your Simputer, the screen appropriately adjusts to a horizontal view in responce to your gesture! You can also connect your simputer to standard USB supported accessories like a mobile phone, an USB memory stick or a digital camera.

Where it stands like a spartan?

In terms of usability, accessibility and user interface I see it as one of the best ever design for a new as well as an advanced PC user. For the rural India, where connectivity and accessibility to good quality education and information is at premium this can act a fantastic device, sans the current price tag for this device.

Another issue in which a Simputer beats other mobile computing device like laptops or lately the UMPC (link:http://umpc.com) is the ultra mobility, intutive user interface and more importantly openness (both on hardware and software stack). A Simputer is also far more cheaper (link:http://amidasimputer.com/pricing/) than any laptop or UMPC. 

The final aspect that make me proud, is the fact the it has been compeletely designed and manufactured in India.

Where it fails and failed?

But! where did it fail? or has it?

As a computing device for masses, the price tag of about Rs. 14K is a bit too high for an average Indian customer. Infact, I feel any price tag above Rs. 10K is expensive and an average Indian customer is a bit skeptical to buy any thing above this "mental barrier". This can be averted in many places by providing community accesibility to one Simputer per 3-5 persons, but given the too "personal" nature of the device, I doubt this can ever be done.

Another most important fact (and the one that should be corrected immediately) is the availability of strong support to developers on this platform. This might seem silly view point, given that the Simputer platform is based on open standards. But it is not only openness that attract developer on any platform, it is also availability of good tools and documentation and eventually some way to make money out of her creation. In terms of availability of tools, a few such tools are available at (link:http://amidasimputer.com/developer/) with sufficient documentation of getting bare minimal programs work and use the PicoPeta widgets (the UI library used by Simputer), but it carries no advanced examples for handling things like accelometer. Secondly, when you compare this device with a Java(TM) or Symbian powered phone, the development of programs on Simputer seems to be far more adourous task than writing a Java Midlet or writing a Python script (link: http://opensource.nokia.com) for Symbian phones. The comparison with smartphones is more deadly for Simputer's acceptability in mass market as Java Powered phones or Symbian based smartphones are available at half the rate of Simputer, with probably more feature(??). Though Java and Python seems to be supported on Simputer, I was unable to get any concrete information on the same.

Dead or has life in it?

As a concept and architecture it will probably never die. As a product, I feel, if the mentors of the project do not take some hard decisions, the end is inevitable, probably consumed by cheaper and more easily accessible smartphones. Probably one of the major aspects that it missed is marketing and mass manufacturing. Though it had a fair share of press attention around the globe, the manufactures have not been able to put out Simputer selling outlets outside Banglore (or probably no one was interested?).

Even though it has not been popular as a device among the general public, it has be extensively used in government projects (like oil exploration) in India and other developing nations, which might be a little bit of satisfaction to the developers of a great device the probably didn't see the true day of the light as of yet. If not now it may revive like the story of Psion (like: http://3lib.ukonline.co.uk/historyofpsion.htm)


Contributed by V.Ganesh

Last Updated: 10th May, 2006.


Note: I will update the information on this site as and when I get more accurate information. All the product name used in this page are copyright of the respective owners in India, USA or other countries.