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Radhakrishna Rao

India's excellence in the Information Technology (IT) sector has been recognised the world over. Against this backdrop the development of a common man's computer called "Simputer" by a team of researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore is expected to reduce the "digital divide" in the country. According to Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, Minister for Human Resource Development and Science and Technology, this low cost portable device is expected to be of immense use in reaching the benefits of IT to common man by allowing simple interface, based on "audio and touch", to ensure that even a simpleton can handle computers. The Simputer, which is planned to carry a price tag of US dollars 200, will find utility in a diverse range of sectors - from micro banking and large data collection to agricultural information and as a school laboratory. Dr. Swami Manohar, leader of the IISc team which developed Simputer, a no-profit trust has been floated to promote the technology not as an end product but as an evolving platform.

According to Vinay Deshpande of the Bangalore-based Encore Software, which will provide software solutions for the functioning of Simputers, there has been a phenomenal response to this device from countries like Peru, Brazil, Middle East, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. "I don't know anyone else in the world who is producing a comparable sophisticated computer at a price tag of US dollars 200", said Kenneth Kenniston, Social Scientist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in USA.

The move of the Indian IT Ministry to set up internet kiosks in various parts of India is likely to boost the market for Simputer, the first commercial version of which is expected to be available before the end of this year. Meanwhile, India is taking steps to protect the intellectual property rights of the Simputer.

Simple, inexpensive and multilingual Simputer has attracted global attention for its innovative design features. The model now being readied for commercial production carries a stylus based text entry system called "tap tap" which obviates the use of a keyboard. Using a specially developed software called "Dhvani" (sound), a built-in loudspeaker speaks the text entered in Hindi, Kannada or Tamil. In another innovation it works on just three standard batteries. Voluntary agencies working in the rural areas have also evinced keen interest in this device.

On another front, Simputer, described by Dr. Joshi as IISc's gift to the third world, is also designed for operation using smart cards. By inserting smart cards into Simputer, it is possible to use it as a personal information management system. It can also be used in adult education, census operations and as a school laboratory. "The impact of these features coupled with the rich connectivity of the Simputer can be dramatic", says Dr. Swami Manohar of IISc.

Two Bangalore-based companies, Pico Peta Simputer Pvt Ltd and Encore Software Ltd, are currently working on versions that are expected to reach the market shortly. While Pico Peta, a commercial venture promoted by the inventors of the device, will target their range at the rural and micro banking applications, Encore Software will focus on areas like e-governance and sales force automation. Both the companies have licensed the product design from the Simputer Trust to manufacture the product.

Encore expects to sell around 100,000 units of Simputer in the first year and hopes to touch a figure of 350,000 over the next three years.

The author is a noted freelance writer on scientific subjects..

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