Thursday, June 26, 2003

Nice shirt

has a generic humanoid carbon unit t-shirt that makes a great anti-racist statement. We're getting a lot of nonsense from some quarters about people taking jobs and other opportunities away from already-privileged people. Let's get the real program out. We can work on many ways to make the pie large enough for everybody. The Simputer is just one of the tools we can use.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Simputer economics

The purpose of today's screed is to point out that the Simputer makes it possible to run a comprehensive global anti-poverty project at a profit, so that we don't have to fool around with thousands of little tiny non-profit organizations tackling inadequate slices of the whole problem. A corollary is that we have a new bottom-up model for globalization, quite different from the multinational corporate model. This new model is based on the poor having the opportunity to state their preferences for what happens next.

The design goals of the Simputer were

The last point requires a bit of explanation. SmartCards cost $1 or so in quantities of a few hundred or more. If one Simputer were to be placed in a village, users would have to pay $1 for the SmartCard, plus a share of the Simputer, plus a share of the communications cost.

Suppose that the Simputer, solar power, batteries, wireless Internet link, and everything else needed cost $700, and suppose that a microbanking institution loaned a villager the money, to be repaid over two years at 12% interest. The loan payments would come to about $1 a day. Simputers have built-in 56K modems. Let us suppose that a 56K wireless connection could be made available for $60 a month, or $2 a day. Let us further suppose that the owner could rent out the Simputer 10 hours a day, six days a week. What then is the pricing plan for users, so that the service provider could cover her costs and make a profit?

Well, we have the $1 SmartCard as a one-time cost. Then we have $3.50 per business day for the Simputer and the modem line, which comes to 35 cents an hour. Charge double that, and the service provider is making $3 a day, or about $900 annually, a very decent income in villages where the official poverty is defined to be $1 a day, as in India, or even 50 cents a day, as in some parts of Africa. So now our village entrepreneur is charging 70 cents an hour.

If poverty is an income of $1 a day, then poor people can't casually get on line with this service and surf the Web. But poor people can get on when it saves them money or brings them other significant benefit. What might do that?

In India, the government provides food aid to the poor, distributed through local merchants. It is reported that the merchants frequently claim that food shipments have not arrived when in fact the merchants have sold them off and kept all of the money. A SmartCard service could verify deliveries and also verify which individuals have received their allotments

Farmers would be able to check prices for supplies in several neighboring towns, and also check prices offered for their crops. Again, it is not necessary for each farmer to spend money in order for all of the farmers in a village to get the best prices available.

Teachers and students would be able to get educational materials from the Net and share them. A one-hour download at 56K bps is about 18 megabytes.

With telemedicine, a health worker could bring a portable instrument kit that plugs into a Simputer. The kit would contain a blood pessure cuff and meter (which would also measure pulse rate), a digital thermometer, a digital stethescope for heart and lung sounds, and a digital video camera suitable for viewing the back of the eye and the interior of the ear, nose, and throat. All of this equipment is available off the shelf today. In addition, there are digital meters for various blood tests, including glucose levels for diabetes.

The data would be sent via wireless communications to a doctor in a clinic somewhere (since doctors cannot afford to travel to villages). The doctor could also ask questions and hear the answers. The result is the equivalent of a standard office visit. If further tests, emergency services, or urgent care are needed, patients could be told what to do on the spot. Villagers would again need SmartCards, to carry their medical information with them. The government might provide the SmartCards.

I could go on like this, but the other possibilities I would cite share the same essential characteristics. None of them involve charity. Some would be funded by governments, as in public schools or a National Health insurance system (or, in the US, Medicaid), and others would be valuable enough and inexpensive enough for the users to pay for them themselves. The villagers could afford to buy the computers and to pay for services, at the same time creating jobs.

In the longer term, access to the Internet would allow village businesses (crafts, for example, or clothing or shoes) to access markets outside the villages, and other businesses to access new markets in the villages. We could expect to see the digital equivalent of the old Sears and Monkey Wards catalogs springing up with merchandise suited to local needs and local cultures. At this point, the combination of schools, economic opportunity, and access to consumer goods would put many areas on the path of accelerated development.

Of course none of this will make people happy, but as Ogden Nash pointed out,
"Certainly there are things in life that money can't buy, but it's really funny.
Have you ever tried to buy them without money?"

Saturday, June 21, 2003

ISPaidkit a la mode de Baghdad

Suitable for any emergency occasion, such as earthquake, fire, flood, storm, or recently ended war, where power and telephone systems are down.
Preparation time: one to two weeks
Serves several million.


1 satellite Internet dish
2 Simputer servers
1 omnidirectional wireless receiver/transmitter
3 desktop computers
1 diesel UPS
100 wireless receiver/transmitters
100 WiFi HotSpots
100 solar power supplies
2000 Simputers with WiFi
200,000 SmartCards
Local liaison
Installation crew
Web designer
Content creators fluent in local languages


Rent space in tallest available centrally-located building.
Get permission from 100 local sites to install wireless gear and 20 Simputers each. These can be schools, libraries, government offices, churches, mosques, or any other location offering public access.
Deal with legal permissions (import permits, visas, licenses, etc.)
Send people and equipment to site of emergency
Hire locals as security guards.
Set up information Web site for emergency information, and emergency mailing lists.
Open Internet service to public, NGOs, government, and press, offering Web browsing, e-mail accounts, file transfer, Web hosting, blogging, and other services.

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Say what?

RE: No ORHA Web ste
From: "Harley, Harriet" <HHarley@usaid.gov>
To: "'cherlin@pacbell.net'"< cherlin@pacbell.net>

Dear Mr. Cherlin,

Thank you for your e-mail concerning Iraq. Between January 31 and March 4,
2003, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) issued nine
procurement actions for reconstruction work in war-torn Iraq. Three grants
have also been awarded to specialized agencies of the United Nations.

Each award is detailed on our web site -- http://www.usaid.gov/iraq. These
reconstruction awards include an initial incremental funding amount to start
activities and a total estimated amount for the full duration of the
contract. This total estimated amount is based on an estimated level of
effort that could be needed for full performance of the contract. However,
it is currently unknown whether this amount will actually be needed. The
final amount could be less.

Each of the 8 prime contracts awarded may require subcontract work or the
hiring of addition employees. USAID prime contractors select their own
subcontractors or employees. For information concerning employment or
subcontracting opportunities, you should contact the prime contractor

Information concerning any future prime contract solicitations will be
posted to the Iraq section of our web site (see web address above.) in a
timely manner. You may also wish to subscribe to our Iraq e-mail list to
receive rapid e-mail notifications of significant USAID/Iraq news. You may
subscribe to this e-mail list via our web site as well. For more information
on the USAID procurements that will support the reconstruction of Iraq
please see the "USAID Reconstruction Contracting Questions and Answers Fact
Sheet" on our web site at

Thank you for your interest in USAID's work in Iraq and your willingness to
help in our efforts.


Harriet Harley
USAID Information Center

-----Original Message-----
From: cherlin@pacbell.net [mailto:cherlin@pacbell.net]
Sent: Thursday, June 12, 2003 4:27 PM
To: pinquiries@usaid.gov
Subject: No ORHA Web ste

This form was filled out at:

User's name: Edward Cherlin

Country: United States
Contact? Please Contact Me

I find it appalling that there is no ORHA Web site, and no contact
information for ORHA on the Web anywhere.

I further find it appalling that USAID, its prime contractor Bechtel, ORHA,
and the Coalition military make no provision for Internet access by Iraqis.
There is no mention of any plans for Internet service anywhere on any of
their Web sites.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

First Mobile Systems Conference Report

Although the first round of Simputers is barely present in the market, it isn't too soon to think about the next generation models. What would you like to see? We know that much wider language support is coming, including text-to-speech and voice recognition. More applications will come pre-installed on future models. An e-mail client and a new browser are on the current list for sure, and Encore is exploring many other packages. Many more Linux applications will become available in forms that can be downloaded and installed easily. Various people on the Simputer list and elsewhere have suggested built-in wireless capability, larger screens, an Ethernet connection, Windows CE, full PDA functionality, and other features, most of which are in development somewhere at Encore or one of its partner companies. This is great stuff, of course, but I'm getting excited about even more remarkable capabilities that we can foresee.

I recently spent two days at the ACM/Usenix Mobile Systems Conference in San Francisco, and I have several new items on my own wish list as a result. One is a computer that I can wear, another is a computer that can automatically join the network when I arrive in a new town or a new office and automatically find the resources that I might like to use, and a third is a computer that can seamlessly move between different communications modes as I move around, or plug and unplug, the way my cell phone can hand of from one cell to another. Of course handing off between a direct wired, IrDA, or wireless connection between two units, a wired or wireless LAN, and the Internet as I move in or out of range is a lot harder than a cell phone handoff, but at the conference I heard how it could be done. More about ideas two and three another time, after I get a chance to talk to more of the people involved. They need not just technology, but a set of international standards, a lot of money, and some way to organize the whole process to keep from falling over each other's feet as we get started.

Anyway, the hot idea for me right now is the wearable Simputer, which is possible right now for the bleeding-edge early adopter with nothing more than technology and cash. To make this a product, we need to replace the screen on the Simputer with a heads-up display, and include a one-hand keyboard. To fool around with the idea, we need a pluggable display (available off the rack), the keyboard, and some of those children's shoes with built-in lights, rewired to the power connector. These shoes are powered by the wearer walking, and I'm told that walking generates enough power to keep a handheld computer's batteries charged.

Think about that. If you work sitting down in an office, you can keep your Simputer plugged in all the time, even if your office isn't on the electrical grid. You can just set up a solar cell on the roof or the windowsill. And if you work standing up and walking around, then you generate the power you need yourself.

So what's the big deal about wearable computing, you might be asking yourself, for someone who doesn't walk around all day? Well, maybe it won't be a big deal to you. But think about how people are going to use handheld computers. The way things are now, they have to hold the computer in one hand and the stylus in the other, and they have to look at the screen much of the time. This is what we call heads-down computing, especially if the user is doing it most of the day. It is how you program, and write, and study, and enter data, but it is not how you want to conduct an interview, or an inventory, or talk to a customer or client. If you can look at another person, or at some object you want to deal with, and have a hand free besides, you can be much more effective and efficient.

A lot of people have been talking about wearable computers for ten years and more, and a few of them have been doing something about it, but it is only now becoming practical in products, and nobody has put the pieces of the puzzle together yet. The Simputer part would be easy for the design team. We can design and build a model without the tiny screen of current Simputers, and with a socket to plug in a head-mounted or glasses-mounted display. That display would have a tiny LCD or LED chip, perhaps a backlight, and some lenses so that the screen would appear to the user to be full size and at a comfortable viewing distance. The computer would need a display controller chip matched to the display chip's resolution, color palette, memory architecture, and control signals. The low-power Geode 9211 display controller chip that I once documented for National Semiconductor would do, and there are others like it.)

Previous heads-up displays have been too expensive, limited in viewing angle, and otherwise unsatisfactory. Recent products have switched from glass to plastic lenses, which saves money, with improved optical design. The tiny display chip we need is much less expensive than a flat-panel display, and draws far less power. The main problem that remains is that current volume is far too low. We need a market of 10,000 units to get the manufacturing economies of scale to kick in.

Thad Starner of Georgia Tech, who was at the Mobile Systems Conference, was wearing a $1,000 display, but he assures me that there is a design availaible of acceptable visual quality that could be made for $60 each in quantity.

You can't get a touch screen on a heads-up display, so we would need some other device for typing and pointing. There is currently a one-hand keyboard with a USB connection, the Twiddler2, for $220, and that price also would come down sharply with quantity production. You have to touch type, of course, and you have to learn more key combinations (chords) than on a two-hand keyboard, but I hear that it doesn't take any longer to learn than a regular keyboard.

Now, let us come back to reality. This system would cost about US$1500.00 today. If the estimates I have been given are correct, then at the 10,000 unit production level, the price would be about $400. And a wearable is not a shareable. So this is not the Simputer we know, love, and wish we could get our hands on. It is what I call Gee-Whiz technology. It would be a terrific draw in a trade show booth, but nobody other than a gadget freak like me would plunk down cash, certainly not company cash, without seeing a specific benefit in a real application that would overcome the resistance to the idea from managent, finance, and above all the users. That means that it has a quite restricted set of applications to start out with, and it will take quite a while to grow past them.

So, then...so what? Well, I certainly want one. If you, too, would like a computer that you can walk around in, or you know of a compelling application for one, definitely let me know. If there is a way to make it happen, I'll push for it. Look for me to turn up sometime wearing my homebrew version.

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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