Just catching up on the status of cheap digital devices for the developing world. I have long been interested in the “Simputer” project, which was initiated several years ago with the goal of creating a viable, cheap device that the poor could use in the developing world to get access to a computer and the Internet. The Simputer was supposed to be multilingual, non-keyboard-based, and usable even by illiterate folk. But the project has been plagued by delays and labeled as “vaporware” by the technorati. Now, apparently, one has hit the market, at least in India. Meanwhile the MIT Media Lab is also hard at work developing a $100 laptop. Both are running Linux.
The Amida company has taken the challenge posed by the Simputer project to manufacture and sell a Simputer, which you can buy from their website http://www.amidasimputer.com. It comes in two models, a $300 device with a black and white screen and a color version for $450. They both run Linux, both sport 64 MG of RAM, 2 USB ports, a serial port, infrared, speaker, microphone, and stylus-type entry. They run on AA batteries, with a rechargeable option.
Internet access is enabled at 56K speeds by either dial-up or connection to certain cell phones. A wifi adaptor is anticipated for the future. Did I mention it had an MP3 player included?
One of the neatest features is the “flip flop” navigation, which enables you to access various functions using hand gestures, like waving your hand to turn the “page” of an e-book or re-orienting an image by turning the device sideways. Could be the first digital “etch-a-sketch”!
How is this 300 to 450 dollar device supposed to help the poor get on the information superhighway? The Simputer founders note that the goal of the Simputer is to get an entire village online. So a community center or women’s cooperative might agree to get a Simputer and share it among themselves. Personal information could be stored on inexpensive flash memory sticks. A group of fishermen could go in together on one to get market information from the capital, so they can know what prices their fish are going for. Clans could use it to keep in touch with family members abroad.
I believe the strategy is to release a handheld device that would be attractive to middle-income professionals to use as an alternative to a laptop or PDA, but that would also be affordable and useful for poorer communities.
I haven’t seen one in action yet, so I can’t render a firm verdict on the Simputer. But I am convinced that the Digital Divide will be bridged by devices such as this, something between a mobile phone and a desktop computer. Something that does not require lots of infrastructure to maintain, is durable in difficult environments, and doesn’t cost $1,000.
The $100 Laptop will be a Linux-based, full-color, full-screen laptop, which initially is achieved either by rear projecting the image on a flat screen or by using electronic ink (developed at the MIT Media Lab). In addition, it will be rugged, use innovative power (including wind-up), be WiFi- and cell phone-enabled, and have USB ports galore. Its current specifications are: 500MHz, 1GB, 1 Megapixel. The cost of materials for each laptop is estimated to be approximately $90, which includes the display, as well as the processor and memory, and allows for $10 for contingency or profit.
Their target “market” is children in the developing world. The lab aims to have these available by late 2006, early 2007.
These are both really cool initiatives. It would be great seeing other competitors in this race.