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Low-cost computing

Low-cost computing

Given the opportunity, Indians can innovate or adjust to any conditions. Network Magazine takes a look at this unique side of us which is once again on display in our approach to low-cost computing. By Kumar Dawada and Vinutha V

As computer prices plummet, individuals and organisations are adopting technology in a big way. These are the people who were left out of the first wave of the IT revolution, mainly due to financial constraints. They are now able to transform their organisations and improve their productivity and efficiency by the use of low-cost computing solutions.

Whether a person is an individual, entrepreneur, CEO, CIO, CFO or the head of an NGO or government organisation, he is looking for the most cost-effective and yet productive method of using technology.

The Simputer Approach

Simputer is short for Simple, Inexpensive, Multi-lingual Computer. It is a handheld device that looks like a Palm personal digital assistant. Costing about Rs 9,000, it is projected as a computing device that promises to bring in a new era of computing for the masses who were earlier unable to afford access to computers. It also aims to bridge the digital divide in India, where despite a booming software sector, 35 percent of citizens cannot read or write. The brain-child of Vinay Deshpande, a Stanford-educated software entrepreneur, the Simputer is primarily meant for users such as farmers who need to know the latest prices of their crops, fishermen who want weather reports before venturing into the sea, health workers who want to collect medical data, and rural bank agents who have to enter data regarding the money they have collected.

At present, Simputer technology is developed by the Simputer Trust—a non-profit organisation comprising individuals from the software industry in Bangalore. The trust also sells the design and licence to make the Simputer. Two Bangalore-based bodies are responsible for the development and production of the Simputer—Encore, an IT company, and BEL-PicoPeta. The Simputer has been used in pilot projects in Karnataka and Chhattisgarh with promising results but is not yet available in retail outlets.

The Simputer interface is, well, simple, and special applications are utilised so that even illiterate people can use these devices. A software called Dhvani converts the text to speech, and it is then read out to the user in one of several Indian languages. It uses IML (Information Markup Language) so that new software can be developed on either Windows or Linux.

Going Mobilis

If prices of the Mobilis family plummet like those of PCs, then it can potentially be a household product like a TV or a mobile phone

Encore’s Vice-president for Advanced Projects, Shashank Garg, has been a busy man. After making Simputers give PDAs a run for their money, Encore has decided to tackle the notebook market. A new product called Mobilis has been unleashed as a low-cost computing solution for those who cannot afford conventional notebook computers.

The Mobilis, touted as a mobile Desktop PC, looks more like a Tablet PC. It has a 15-inch LCD screen, 128 MB RAM, and instead of a hard disk it uses 128 MB of flash memory. This actually makes the product compact and lightweight—it weighs only 750 grams. By comparison, most notebooks weigh in at over two kilos.

The computer has a local language interface and features text to speech as well as common applications such as word processor, spreadsheet, presentation software, Web browser and address book.

Encore is coming out with three models of Mobilis. The entry-level model costs Rs 10,000. The second model has a carry case which opens up to resemble a desktop stand. It has a keyboard that can be rolled up and kept in the pouch of the carry bag. This intermediate-level model costs Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000. The top-of-the-line model is called Mobilis Wireless. It has a built-in GPS receiver and allows attachment of a GPRS wireless modem. It costs Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000.

Running Linux, these devices make use of open source software to ensure flexibility and customisation for all types of applications and services. The power source is a battery which can last for up to six hours before it needs a recharge.

Different Roles

Mobilis has built-in Ethernet, analog modem, and optional built-in fingertip sensor for use as a kiosk terminal. Due to its touch-screen capability, it can actually replace the heavy, bulky and costly kiosks which are currently being used at village panchayats.

Since it can virtually act as a laptop computer, Mobilis is ideal for industrial applications such as sales force automation, e-governance, healthcare, tele-medicine and education, or any other field where limited finance prevents the use of high-end products but a feature-rich product is still required for enhanced productivity and efficiency.

“With our experience in the Simputer, PC architecture and other forms of computing, we were aiming to come up with a device that bridges the gap between PDAs and notebooks. The reliability of the product is high as it can be used in all weather conditions and rugged work environments,” informs Garg.

Vinay Deshpande
Chairman & CEO
Encore Software

Encore has its eyes set on the mainstream computing market including household computing, small business computing, and professionals including lawyers, chartered accountants and doctors. It also intends to target Mobilis at the field staff of different industries including pharmaceuticals, insurance and banking. Book-lovers and students can use Mobilis as an e-book reader, and have a virtual library at their disposal wherever they go.

If prices of the Mobilis follow the trend of the plummeting costs of PCs, then it may have the potential of becoming a household product like TVs and mobiles.

Linux: Empowering The Law

One of the main factors which reduces computer access is the prohibitively high cost of software, especially Microsoft’s Windows-based applications. But, like the Mumbai High Court, some are finding a way out by using Linux.

Under the current Chief Justice Dalveer Bhandari, the Mumbai High Court, its benches at Aurangabad, Nagpur and Goa, and all the district and taluka court have become computerised. While buying computers for the High Court, technical factors as well as cost-effectiveness were kept in mind. These courts invested in low-cost computers, or in more costly computer hardware but saved overall costs by using Linux and other open source software. As a result, they are now able to afford legal software.

Mohan Krishnan, the Technical Director of NIC for the Mumbai High Court, reveals that the court uses dual CPU Xeon servers running Linux. The court is networked. The PC available with every judge is a client, and is connected to the main server. The court has seven servers including the main server, Web server and the application server. The RDBMS is also Linux-based. The court uses Apache Web server, the backend is mySQL, and the front-end used is PHP.

A major problem faced by NIC was to get the court staff adjusted to IT. There was a limitation of expansion, a limited budget, and an ever-looming financial crunch.

Nevertheless, thanks to low-cost computing solutions, there is now a constant monitoring of cases—how many cases are pending, what is the rate of disposal of cases, are old cases being attended to or not, etc. E-mail contact is regularly kept with district courts as this is faster than sending physical letters to them through a court official.

The Touch Screen Solution

The Mumbai High Court has provided an information centre on its ground floor for litigants. The screen acts as an interface to access information about a pending case. All the litigant has to do is to enter the case number or name of the party, and the status of the case and the next hearing date is immediately displayed. One benefit is that this cuts the cost of maintaining extra staff only for providing information. Another benefit is that litigants no longer have to contact their lawyer or court clerk or court officer to find out the status of their case. Certified copies of judgements or orders which earlier used to take weeks to procure are nowadays available in a few hours.