Friday, June 11, 2010

The Poor Man's Computer : Simputer

One of the problems with a full-fledged computer is that it is can seem very complicated and intimidating to people who aren’t used to it. Secondly, though mainstream computing devices like desktop computers and laptops are still expensive they are not rugged enough for certain environments.

The Simputer is an Open Source Hardware handheld computer which has been designed specifically for environments where mainstream computing devices cannot be deployed due to limitations that are either monetary or pertain to the lack of reliable electric supply.

The Simputer is targeted as a shared computing device for a local community of users. A village panchayat or a village school can give this device to individuals for a specific period of time and later pass it on to other community members.


The Simputer project was conceived during the ‘Global Village’, an International Seminar on Information Technology for Developing Countries in 1998. The seminar highlighted the point that the key to bridging the digital divide is to have shared devices that permit truly simple and natural user interfaces based on sight, sound and touch. The challenge was to develop a low-cost, easily available device that would deliver local language and icon-based IT access to the masses. 

The device was designed by the Simputer Trust, a non-profit organization founded in November 1999 by seven Indian scientists and engineers. The name, ‘Simputer’ is an acronym for ‘simple, inexpensive and multilingual people’s computer’ and is a trademark of the Simputer Trust.

The Simputer Trust was established to fulfill the vision of taking IT and its benefits to the rural masses. The Trust is described as “a coming together of academics and technologists from industry with a broad imperative of harnessing the potential of the Simputer for the benefit of all sections of society. The vision is to promote the Simputer, not as an end product but as an evolving platform for social change.”

The Device

The device runs on the GNU/Linux operating system and includes multilingual text-to-speech software. It has a stylus-operated touch screen and comes with simple handwriting recognition software. The device uses an icon-based interface, which coupled with the Indian language text-to-speech software allows non-literate users to browse the web. The interface uses pictures and the text-to-speech capability to allow them to understand the content of the web pages along with the usual services of e-mail, audio files and Internet access.

While the Simputer resembles a PDA, it is more powerful than the PDAs that were built around that time. It runs on an Intel StrongARM SA-1110 chip clocking at 206 MHz with 32 MB of flash memory and 32 MB of RAM. The StrongARM chip was also used in mobile phones and PDAs like the HP iPAQ, HP Jornada apart from the Simputer.

The Information Markup Language (IML) was created keeping in mind the unique needs of the Simputer. Referred to as the ‘Illiterate’ Markup Language, it was designed to provide the following features:
- Uniformity across diverse applications
- Ease of use
- Support for multilingual text and speech output
- Support for Smart Card usage
- Transparent access to remote/local resources
- Ease of application development
- Use of Internet standards
- Platform independence

      As a result of these features, applications for the Simputer can be developed on any platform: Linux, Windows, Solaris or MacOS.

      Noting the unreliability of electricity for the rural poor, the Simputer is powered by AAA rechargeable batteries apart from AC mains current. The batteries can offer between 6-8 hours of continuous usage.

      Other hardware features of the device include a built-in modem; infrared port and USB port for connecting it with other devices.

      It was also the world’s first handheld computer with an in-built Smart Card reader/writer that allows sharing of the device within the community. Since Smart Cards allow personal information management, a large number of people can benefit from a single device.


      It wasn’t easy to get this device off the ground. The Simputer Trust made the decision to not undertake the manufacture and distribution of the Simputer. They have made Simputer’s hardware specifications available online with very generous licensing provisions. Multiple manufacturers are desired for production, as the Trust believes that it would help minimize the cost of the hardware for the consumer. The Simputer Trust licenses the device’s design and software to manufacturers for mass production but keeps a tight control on its specifications in order to maintain standards. The device makers can modify the design but must pool back the changes to the trust after having a headstart of one year in commercially using the modifications. As with any such device, it’s the useful applications that will drive the demand, not just the cost of the device. Software developers and entrepreneurs are not familiar with the needs of the rural poor and the market opportunities serving them, hence it will take some time for the device to capture the kind of market space that it can. But the market for this device is huge; the need for this device is great.

      The company manufacturing the device faced a lot of problems, as it was very tough to arrange for the funds required to manufacture this device in numbers that enable them to keep the price of Simputers low, a fact admitted by Vinay Deshpande, Managing Trustee, Encore Software in an interview.

      Ensuring that the Simputer is truly low-cost, at least to the end user is another issue that needed to be looked into. At $200 it is still too high for rural communities. It was hoped that governments and large multilateral organizations would adopt the Simputer and indirectly make it affordable for the rural communities.

      There were issues with the device’s repairability. A look at the website’s FAQs section reveals the tongue-in-cheek manner in which the Simputer Trust responds to this issue:
      Q: There is often a technical conflict between low-cost and repairability (for example, I imagine you will not be socketing devices!). Will the Simputer be more of a throwaway or a repairable device; and if the second, how will you achieve this?

      A: No devices are socketed. We haven't really worked on the manufacturability/ maintainability aspects of the Simputer yet. However, in developing countries nothing is "throwaway". We expect proliferation of Simputers to encourage spread of associated spare parts/repair/maintenance activities. You can see that we are real optimists:-)
      Pilots and Deployment

      Applications in diverse sectors such as telemedicine, micro banking, health data collection, distance education for remote schools, agricultural information gathering and dissemination are just a few anticipated.
      - Simputers were extensively used by the Government of Karnataka, India to automate the process of land records procurement
      - In 2005 they were used in a variety of innovative and interesting applications, such as automobile engine diagnostics (Mahindra and Mahindra in Mumbai, India)
      - Used for Electronic Monet Transfer between UK, Ghana and others
      - The Bangalore Traffic Police deployed Simputers to track traffic offenders and issue traffic tickets
      - Used by the Indian Military


          Considering all that has been briefed about the Simputer and its journey from an idea to a final product, it is too early to assess its impact. But it is also true that if the project gets the kind of support that it requires, the potential impact of this product on the rural poor would be profound.


          1. What an innovation- wish it to spread inside interior India deep and wide:)!

          2. Yeah it was a good idea. Implementation was something that needed to be looked into. Hopefully the Simputer will be revived and will evolve into something that it was meant to be.

            I am also gonna try and get my hands on an OLPC :D

          3. Hey Subir the innovation was really great but Which of the following agencies plans to build a nationwide grid of Simputers? If you know please tell me i really wanna to buy it.

          4. @Max White
            Hello Max, I'm glad that you're interested in this little gem of an innovation :)
            There doesn't seem to be much movement on Simputers right now. A large number of people are of the opinion that it was a complete waste of time and resources. I would just say that its the implementation that went wrong and there wasn't much investment in this project.
            I have included links to their official websites, maybe you can get in touch with Encore and ask them if they would send you one?

          5. Great writing! I want you to follow up to this topic :P