A little Computer Can go a Long Way
- A Little Computer Can Go a Long Way: Low-Cost Computers for the People
Repost from IOJ: email@example.com
A Little Computer Can Go a Long Way
by Rachel Anderson (rachel@...) in The Digital Divide
In a country like India, where nearly 50% of the population is unable
to read or write, simply providing access to computers and the
Internet just isn't enough. That's what motivated a team of Indian scientists and engineers to create a way for people with limited literacy and computer skills to take advantage of the wealth of information on the Net. The team has developed a small, powerful computing device called the "Simputer" -- short for "simple inexpensive mobile computer" -- that reads out the text found on Web pages in a number of India's many native languages.
Field test with the first working prototypes of the Simputer, which will cost around $200, have just begun this month. Slightly larger than the popular Palm handheld computers, the Simputer has a built-in browser, email software, a text-to-speech program for several Indian languages and an MP3 player. The machine, which should be available for sale by March 2002, runs on widely available AAA batteries.
A group of socially-committed academics and technologists from India's computing industry came together to form the non-profit Simputer Trust, which is offering both the software and the hardware for the appliance as open-source technology. Their vision is to create not only a computer, but also an "evolving platform for social change" throughout the world that will help bridge the digital divide.
They are particularly excited by the possibilities of exposing India's vast rural population to Simputer technology. Indian farmers, for example, could use the devices to check local weather forecasts or the latest market price for various produce. Simputer's creators also point to its potential as a tool for accessing online governmental and health-care services.
For the 99% of Indians that do not currently have access to the Internet, one of the most useful features is the Simputer's "smart card" port. The computer's low price still exceeds
what most Indians can afford, so its creators devised a way to let many individuals share a single machine by each using their smart cards to activate their personal accounts. Simputers might even appear in country's ubiquitous public telephone kiosks, where an entire village could take advantage of Internet access.
While global technology companies are not racing to get their products into the hands of people in less developed countries, it is good to know that there are some grassroots efforts underway to bring digital information to the masses. The experiments in
India and Brazil might even demonstrate the commercial viability of developing low-cost
computers for mass consumption.
At the Digital Dividends conference in Seattle last fall, C.K. Prahalad, a professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, called for participants to rethinking the way people view the lower economic tiers of societies and the need for new business models to address them.
"How can you go from [looking at] the poor as an intractable problem, to the poor as a market and a source of innovation?" he asked.