Learning with the Simputer
By Dmitri Ragano, Fri Apr 11 08:00:00 GMT 2003

In rural India, a new device aims to bring technology and education to unconnected communities.

The information revolution never made it to the schools of Mahasamund in the Chhattisgarh state of India. Not until late last year, at least, when Anita Rawate introduced to teachers and schoolchildren a flat, gray, AAA battery-powered handheld machine with an LCD screen that ran math games and other learning applications on a Linux OS.

"It is very isolated here," said Rawate, who is director of the Rural Development Program for Girls in this agricultural region in the middle of the sub-continent. "At first the villagers were excited to see the Simputer but they were also afraid of it... When they began to use it, they enjoyed it and it changed their attitude towards learning."

Eight months since Rawate first introduced the Simputer, she is already seeing results. In the primary- and secondary- schools that she works with in the slums and rural areas of Mahasamund, student attendance has increased 20 percent. Teachers and children have not only learned how to use the device and are now developing new Simputer content on their own.

"Even the parents are interested and come after school to see the Simputer. Of course they don't know how to use it yet but their children do," said Rawate.

High-Tech Humanitarianism

Rawate's work with student and teachers is a small but critical step in realizing the ambitious, humanitarian goals of the Simputer project. This non-profit initiative is the brainchild of computer scientists at the Indian Institue of Science, located in the southern high-tech city of Bangalore.

The Simputer project was founded four years ago with the purpose of providing low-cost, portable computing and connectivity to poor and illiterate people who are currently untouched by personal computing, cell phones and other existing mechanisms.

The project illustrates paradoxical relationships around technology that characterize a country whose population is distributed across the vast extremes of the digital divide. Seventy percent of Indians live in rural areas with little or no access to telephones and electricity. Initiatives like the Hole in the Wall project have effectively introduced computing to the urban poor but reliance on conventional computers and telecom infrastructure make such ideas ineffective in the hinterlands where most Indian live.

"The desktop consumes 30 Watts; the Simputer consumes about 1 Watt," said V. Vinay, CTO of PicoPeta, a Bangalore-based company that designs software and hardware for the Simputer. "There is simply no way that a country like ours can afford to deploy desktop PC's in a scalable fashion."

The Simputer is different than PDAs and smart phones, according to Swami Manohar, CEO of PicoPeta, in its focus on a user audience that is either illiterate or at least technically illiterate.

"So far no device that meets the expectation of the non-techy population has come to market," said Manohar. PicoPeta's software platform for the Simputer provides a icon-based language for visual, text-free applications as well as text-to-speech (TTS) output modules for English, Hindi and other Indian dialects. The Simputer initiative has also created a specific mark-up language called IML, which enables content developers to use standard XML tools and engines for visual and voice-based applications. For input, the Simputer uses a tool called Tapatap, which resembles a stylus-pen. The device is equipped with a smart card, an MP3 player and USB connector, enabling transferability of content developed on personal computers.

Manohar also stresses the shared nature of Simputers, and calls them "Community Digital Assistant" not to be confused with PDAs such as Palm and Handspring. "People do not share PDAs, but sharing is part of a CDA's design intent. Ownership is incidental, but access is critical for CDAs."

Using Open Source Ideas Against Illiteracy

Affordability is a point where the Simputer may find it more difficult to differentiate. The initiative currently estimates that the cost for the device will be 9,000 rupees, or $190 USD, when it reaches mass production. However, that is still far too expensive to serve the needs of many in rural India. The initiative realizes this and has several strategies for overcoming cost barriers.

One method is to enlist government and non-governmental organizations in sponsoring initiatives that subsidize the cost for introducing Simputers into rural communities This is what is happening in the Bhoomi ("land harvest" in the Kannada dialect) project in the state of Karnataka right now, where the 200 village accountants are using the devices to computerize land records and crop harvest data.

Another strategy for lowering costs is inspired by the Open Source movement. Simputer's invenotrs have created a GPL-like license (called the Simputer Gnu Public License) for the hardware design in hopes of growing the manufacturing base. "Linux has shown that software capabilities have only increase with the availability and use of Unix in the early days of computing in India and more recently with Linux," according to the Simputer.org web site. "By making available the Simputer hardware (design) under SGPL we believe that the barrier to entry to hardware system development will be lowered."

Seeds for the Harvest

Despite four years of effort and international attention, the Simputer movement is just getting started through projects such Rawate's school programs. After several production delays, the first devices became available in the latter half of 2002. Manohar estimates that only 600 monochrome screen versions have been manufactured so far and 400 of those are being used in by customers, primarily through trials such as the Bhoomi land record project. PicoPeta is currently working on a color version that it hopes will go into production this June.

While this may be a modest beginning, Rawate is already experiencing demand from rural communities outside of Mahasamund. Although she is currently only taking the Simputers to villages within 10 to 20 kilometers of the city, she would like to get an off-road vehicle allowing her to visit a greater range of outlying communities in Chhattisgarh.

Beyond the classrooms, she sees ample opportunities to extend the device's educational reach to other groups such as women, farmers and the handicapped.

"It is very backward here and one of the problems in the rural areas is empowerment of women. We need to use Simputers to introduce for women's vocational training and other social tools. Also we need content for rice farmers here, who currently have no irrigation and depend on rain only"

"Right now, the Simputer is useful for children but we can make it useful for others. People enjoy using the Simputer, so that makes it a good agent for social change."

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Dmitri Ragano is a writer focused on mobile technology. After spending the past year in Asia, he is currently based in Southern California.