Thursday, June 12, 2003

The Simputer is intended to be a disruptive technology. Unfortunately, marketers trying to make every new gadget acronym-complete and fully buzzword compliant have taken over the term, so we need to dump the hype and look at some real examples first.

A true disruptive technology changes the nature of the economy and of prevailing political systems. Swords and chariots are good examples, as are gunpowder, ships capable of sailing into the wind, steam power and the telegraph. PCs and the Internet qualify, as do cell phones in developing countries.

HDTV doesn't change things that much, nor do PDAs. They are important developments, but they continue in the same line as the products they replace. Digital video recorders have a lot of economic potential, so far unrealized, but definitely enough so that media companies are taking defensive action. Nevertheless, there doesn't seem to be much potential political impact.

Chariots brought about the empires of India, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Gunpowder enabled the Kings of France to gain real authority over their nobles. Ship technology created the Age of Empire and airplanes ended it. Cell phones have allowed the public in many countries to bypass their state telephone monopolies, resulting in accelerated economic and political growth within those countries, and between them and the rest of the world.

The Simputer supports new economic options for computing and communications, disrupting existing models for the computer and communications businesses. The starting point is that Simputers are designed for poor people by incorporating shareability. The built-in SmartCard reader enables a variety of applications for which the individual user needs only a SmartCard, while the service provider pays for the computer. Furthermore, Simputers can operate without power and telephone lines. Solar and other renewable power sources are quite adequate for keeping a spare pair of AA batteries charged. In fact, those shoes with lights in them, powered by walking or running, can put out enough power to run a Simputer or an external battery charger.

All of this means that Simputers can be targeted at enterprise and government applications serving two or three billion people who are beyond the reach of previous computer systems. Trials are going on in banking, postal money transfer, agricultural surveys, and billing systems. The government of India is seriously considering buying over a billion SmartCards to hand out to all of their citizens. Many other countries are looking into similar projects, as are NGOs and international organizations.

The economic impact in terms of development is unknown but clearly huge. The impact on the computer industry is also unknown but huge, starting from the fact that revolutionary designs can come from India and many other countries around the world outside the established tech centers. Another major factor is the use of Linux and of Free Software and Open Source software on Simputers. The movement away from proprietary software has been gathering momentum for many years, and has now emerged at the level of official government policy in a number of countries. It is obvious that schools where the teacher makes less than $1 a day cannot acquire and teach commercial software. In the last year, Linux applications have matured to the point where schools do not need to use commercial software. In many of the Simputer's target countries, we can expect Linux to become dominant before it happens in the US and other developed countries.

The political results will be even greater, when people in every village will be able to download free software, contact each other by e-mail, and join in the global conversation. It is not only local and national politics that will change. Simputers offer a bottom-up road to a global economy and a new global legal and political order that is entirely different from the current corporate model for globalization. We do not know what the results of these competing forces will be, but we do know that they will be interesting.
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