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Linux-Based Netpliance
Sunday, October 1, 2000

The low-cost PC will not have a keyboard or a large monitor. Instead, it will have a small touch-sensitive screen, on which users will be able to write a message using a pen-like devise. Future versions may also work on voice. While everybody has been talking about taking IT to rural areas, the first concrete initiative to do that has come from the group of academics and an innovative IT company in Bangalore. They have developed a truly low-cost Internet access device that may cost just Rs. 9,000 (about $200).

“The ‘Win-tel’ architecture of the de facto standard PC is quite unsuitable for deployment in the low-cost mass market in any developing country. The entry barrier due to software licensing is just too high. While the Wintel PC provides a de facto level of standardization, it is not an open architecture,” say IISc researchers.

The Simputer prototype is built around Intel’s StrongARM CPU, with Linux as the operating system. It will have 16 MB of flash memory, a monochrome liquid crystal display (LCD) with a touch panel overlay for pen-based computing, and a local-language interface. The initial Simputer model will have a rudimentary Kannada front-end interface.

The Simputer will use free software from the open Linux platform. PCs today cost a lot more because of the proprietary operating systems from Microsoft that they use. In fact, says Professor Swami Manohar of IISc, the group has liberally borrowed its philosophy from the concept of “free software” propounded by a worldwide group of software developers. “We have extended the free software concept to the hardware design of the Simputer platform. The hardware design will be open and extensible, so that any licensee can add value to the platform.” It will use components and sub-systems that are available off the shelf in the market.

The new device could turn out to be a shared computing device for many users in a community. A local community such as the village panchayat or the village school, or a kiosk, or even a shopkeeper should be able to give this device out to individuals for a specific period of time and then pass it on to others in the community. This requires the device to be personalized for individual use on a changing basis. This has been achieved by making the Simputer work with “smart cards.” With this system, a user’s individual profile can be stored on a SmartCard, which he or she can carry around. Once inserted into the SmartCard Interface, the Simputer will read the profile from the SmartCard and also update changes, if any.

“The incorporation of a Smart card reader/writer in the Simputer will increase its the functionality for providing a richer set of value-added services like home banking and home shopping,” says Manohar. The IISc group has joined with Encore Software to set up Simputer Trust, which will make the technology for the low-cost device freely available for mass manufacturing.

With Encore CEO and Chairman Vinay Deshpande taking over as president of India’s leading hardware body, Manufacturers Association of Information Technology (MAIT), the Simputer is likely to get a boost. The Simputer Trust and Encore are planning to license the technology to large manufacturers soon.

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