Conjure up an image of a farmer in rural Karnataka or Kerala, listening to a radio broadcast of the weather with a simple, small portable computer in his hand. With all the weather updates to boot, he makes a quick call to a bank for cash to buy seeds and fertilizer. He doesn’t stop there. With a pocketbook-sized computer in his hand, he smartly connects to the net for some handy tips on how to grow that particular crop. It’s all thanks to the Simputer, the backbone of this entire process. The Simputer has garnered all the data that he had wanted in the shortest possible time.
Now there is no denying that this is a utopian scenario. It would have been possible had this pocketbook-sized computer reached many of our farmers in the rural India. Though it ran into rough weather it had its good times too. Read how.
The Simputer Trust—a group of scientists of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and few engineering professionals from the firm Encore Software designed a linux-based handheld device, to make computing affordable and accessible to developing countries that face barriers of price, language, and literacy. First released in 2002 and with an initial goal of selling 50,000 Simputers, the project could sell only 4000 units by 2005!
What could have slowed down the sales of the Simputers? The software developers and entrepreneurs found it tough to understand the requirements of the rural poor and the market opportunities serving them, hence it took a bit of time for the device to capture the needs of people.
“Software developers didn’t have the motivation to do it. Had the government bought 10,000 pieces, it would have encouraged people to buy, and encouraged software developers too, to develop those applications,” says Vinay Deshpande, chairman and CEO, Encore Software.
The absence of apps did cost Encore Software. “We did not have readymade applications built on the Simputer. Our calculation went wrong. All the features like the touch screen, GPS, handwriting recognition were present but the apps to use those features were not there.”
Venture capitalists too were hesitant because they didn’t feel India could produce and fund such a technology and were not sure whether it was the right place for developing such products.
Deshpande says, “We were grossly underfunded. Had our banks funded our initiative it would have grown into a big revolution. The whole process would have taken off in a big way.”
“The movement from prototype models to full-scale commercial production required marketing, volume, finance and servicing. The support of these three is a must for products–but we didn’t have this ecosystem for innovation in India in 2005. For example, for mass scale production, moulds were required which were expensive and time-consuming.”
Amid all these obstacles, Simputer managed to gather good reviews and praises. The New York Times had given rave reviews –“The most significant innovation in computer technology in 2001 was not Apple’s gleaming titanium Powerbook G4 or Microsoft’s Windows XP. It was the Simputer, a Net-linked, radically simple portable computer, intended to bring the computer revolution to the third world.” The Time magazine called it one of the best technologies ever. Both CNN and National Geographic carried a review of this small grey box on their channels.
It didn’t stop there. Back home Simputer was put to good use too. To automate land records procurement, Simputers were extensively used by government of Karnataka. The Simputer project even won the Dewang Mehta Award for innovation in information technology.
Had this nondescript little computer become popular, it would have bridged the digital divide and brought information technology to the developing countries. And not to forget it would have been a huge sigh of relief for the farmers, village panchayats, schools, kiosks, and shopkeepers because they don’t need to know English to operate it!