Monday, July 21, 2003

Simputer FAQ

1. What is the Simputer?
2. What features make Simputers suited to use by poor and illiterate people?
3. What are Simputers for?
4. Where can I get a Simputer?
5. What software runs on Simputers?
6. What products for Simputers are in development?
7. Where can I find out more about the Simputer?
8. How does the Simputer differ from a PDA?

1. What is the Simputer?

Although the Simputer (Simple, Inexpensive, Multilingual Computer) looks a lot like a PDA, it was designed primarily for use by poor and even illiterate people to provide access to health, education, information, and other services. As a Linux handheld with unequalled connectivity at an unheard-of low price, the Simputer turns out to be a platform well-suited to Free Software, commercial applications, and embedded systems of many kinds. The basic model starts at US$206.00.

The Simputer has the following connections built in.

Infrared (IrDA)
SmartCard reader/writer
USB master
USB slave
Sound I/O
56K modem
Serial port
Compact Flash connector (CF II)
External power

Simputers can be connected to anything supported by infrared, USB, or Compact Flash interfaces, a serial port, or a modem. This includes wired and wireless LANs, the Internet, data acquisition systems, GPS, Flash storage devices, hard drives, CD-ROM and DVD drives, mouse, keyboard, external monitor, wired and IrDA printers, and most other computer peripherals and communications systems.

2. What features make Simputers suited to use by poor and illiterate people?

The Simputer is designed with multilingual capability, including Text-to-Speech conversion for several languages of India. Voice recognition will be added later, and voice capabilities will be expanded to other languages.

A very large pool of no-cost software can be put on the Simputer.

Free Software and Open Source software provide access to source code. This means that such programs can be adapted to new needs without waiting on the good will of a vendor. The commercial operating system vendors, including Microsoft, Apple, Sun, and other commercial Unix vendors, do not see a business case for support of all of the languages of India, nor do they see a business case for suporting other languages of poor countries in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere.

Simputers can be shared using inexpensive SmartCards for private storage. This reduces the cost per person greatly.

Simputers use 2 AA batteries for power, or an external transformer. Lithium ion AA batteries can be recharged using solar or human power in areas where there is no electric supply.

3. What is the Simputer for?

Applications of the Simputer are in development in many areas. Applications directed especially at the needs of the poor include health, education, government services, microbanking, access to information, and general communication. Other applications include inventory management, agriculture, scientific and government data acquisition, financial services, construction, and many more.

4. Where can I get a Simputer?

Simputer development systems are currently available. This includes a monochrome Simputer, a color Simputer, the Simputer SDK on CD-ROM, and two days' training, all for US$1500.00. The Simputer SDK includes all of the tools needed to compile applications for the Simputer on any supported Linux system, or on Windows.

Simputers are not in retail distribution. Some potential development partners are in discussions with Encore Technologies, the principal manufacturer, about retail versions. FCC approval is being sought in the U.S., and similar efforts are under way for other markets.

5. What software runs on Simputers?

The Simputer comes with standard Unix utilities, a hardware "control panel" set of utilities, and the following applications and demonstrations.

Address book (Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali, English)
Web browser
File browser
Unix terminal running sh shell command interpreter
MP3 music player
Image file viewer
IrDA printing utility

Banking demo
Billing demo
Land survey demo (English and Kannada)
Meter reader demo
SmartCard reader/writer demo
Text-to-Speech demo

There are thousands of Unix/Linux applications that will run on Simputers. Many have been compiled for the StrongARM processor in the Simputer, and are available for download. Others can be cross-compiled from source code on any system running the Simputer SDK, and then downloaded to the Simputer.

A Java system and several APL systems are being ported to the Simputer. Programming languages currently available for Simputer development include C, C++, Perl, Python, and LISP. There are Integrated Development Environments supporting all of these languages together with GUI development tools and numerous libraries.

6. What products for Simputers are in development?

The Showcase section of simputerland.com has information on a number of applications and tools in development by the following partner companies.

Africa Digital Bridges
Regional Distributor of Encore's Simputer in Africa and the Middle East

Analytix Systems
Mobile solutions, analysis and data-mining

ANT Labs
Wireless and broadband networking

Appear Networks
Wireless solutions for WISPs (wireless internet service providers)

Supply chain solutions

Deltra Software
Multi-lingual Text-to-Speech

E&I / DigicircleEuropean Community Market distributor
Developer's network
ERP application

ekgaon technologies
Information Systems
Knowledge Management
Rural Networking
Micro-Enterprise Management Systems
Multi-lingual Computing

Eutech Cybernetics
Intelligent building management
Property and facility management
Energy asset management
Network management
Comprehensive solution for hospitals and networked healthcare organizations
Turnkey contract programming services

client-server life insurance and pensions products

G4 Software
Scalable enterprise solutions

IBIZ Consulting
Enterprise business solutions

IT awareness and literacy in a developing countries

Knowledge Systems
Bluetooth Protocol Stack for Linux

Maringo Tree
Linux consulting
Wireless LANs
Internet Security
GRID/Cluster-based high performance computing
Kernel hardening
Embedded systems

Enterprise application suite
Financial management
Trade documentation
Order processing
Supply chain management
Customer relationship management

Pyxis Technology Sol
Pyxis Civic Management System

Micro-Banking and Micro-Credit
Land Records
Meter reading

Spider Systems
ERP Software Implementation
Web-enabled business solutions
Embedded systems development
Database administration support
Sales Force Automation

Indian language support

7. Where can I find out more about the Simputer?

The following sites have information on the history of the Simputer, its detailed hardware and software design, the people and companies involved, press accounts, and much more.

The Simputer Trust (originators of the design)
Encore Technologies (manufacturer)
Picopeta (manufacturer)
Sourceforge Free and Open Source software development
Dhvani Text-to-Speech

Mailing lists
Yahoo Groups

8. How does the Simputer differ from a PDA?

The Simputer has greater connectivity (FAQ 1), much lower cost per user through sharing (FAQ 2), and much greater support for languages of India (FAQ 5). Of course, a PDA version of the Simputer could be created.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

The Grameen Foundation Village Computing Project

The Grameen Bank in Bangla Desh was the beginning of the microbanking movement, which has loaned money to tens of millions of poor people, either to get out of debt to local loan sharks, or to start or improve some small-scale business. Loans might go to buy sewing machines, farm equiipment, or cell phones.

Placing cell phones in villages has turned out to be one of the most fruitful microbanking programs, since each phone provides a modest living to the owner, who rents it out to others in the area, and also provides economic opportunity, improved access to health care, and communications between villagers and their relatives who have gone to the city or to some other country to find work.

The obvious potential for low-cost computers in villages has led the Grameen Foundation USA Technology Center to create a Village Computing Project, pursuing many of the same ideas as Simputer partners.

The first stage of the Grameen project is the creation of information kiosks to present information in the Tamil language. Field trials in Tamil Nadu in the south of India are scheduled to begin in August with units made by Drishtee. Encore plans to get into a later round of these trials, and will work with the Grameen Technology Center on plans for future projects in telemedicine, wireless Internet, education, and so on.

Microbanking institutions have helped tens of millions of people out of dire poverty. We need only to multiply that effect by a factor of a hundred in coverage, and perhaps another hundred in income levels (since poverty in many places is defined as an income of $1 a day or less, and some developed countries have economic production in the region of $100 a day per person). The task is huge, but not impossible. Our most important tool is the law of compound interest, which produces large multiples out of modest annual percentage gains, now that we have started. We also know that a period of extremely rapid growth is possible at some point in the future, although we do not know when it will begin in any particular country.

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Elevator Speech

I have been practicing this, and I thoulght that others might find it helpful in case somebody wants a quick verson of the Simputer story. It takes less than 30 seconds to say, so you really can get the essential points in if somebody asks you on an elevator.

Hi, I'm Ed Cherlin, the Evangelist for the Simputer from Encore Technologies. We offer handheld computers that poor and illiterate people can afford and can use to get on the Internet even without access to power lines and telephone service. The technologies to support this include text-to-speech software for languages of India and elsewhere, solar-powered battery chargers, and wireless communications. Although poor people can't afford Simputers for their individual use, a village can buy one to share. We also sell Simputers for enterprise applications, and plan to offer other Simputer products including low-cost, low-power servers, wearable computers, tablet computers, and controller boards for embedded systems. You can find out more at Simputerland.com.

Friday, July 04, 2003

Not in My Territory

We want to place Simputers in villages and enterprises all over the world, and we are getting a lot of interest from almost everywhere in the world, but there are a few places where we are legally barred from doing business. There are export controls and sanctions imposed by the US and other countries, but that isn't what I am talking about. I mean countries that won't let us in.

The top place on the list goes to North Korea. The population is allowed no contact with foreigners. especially with anybody who speaks Korean, like me. (I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Seoul in the 1960s.) South Korean tourists aren't allowed to talk to any North Koreans other than their minders. With rare exceptions, you can't make phone calls into or out of North Korea. Aid workers are not permitted in to see what happens to the aid they provide.

Burma (Myanmar) makes it almost as hard for the public to get on the Internet. The government has a big official Information and Communication Technology Park, but no communications technology for the people. Burma has tight laws regulating modems, requiring explicit government permission for any individual to own one, and they don't give permission to anybody who wants to empower the poor. Since Simputers have modems built in, that rather limits the possibilities.

Libya used to be a problem, but recently Internet service has been offered to anybody with a telephone connection and enough money. That still isn't a lot of people, but it is a big improvement.

The rest of the legal restrictions we face on deployment are in the few countries that deny Internet service to minorities. This mainly concerns severe restrictions and outright repression of Kurds in Syria and Turkey. Iran regards the Kurds as Persians who talk funny, since Kurdish and Persion (Farsi) are about as closely related as Spanish and Portuguese or Catalan (another language banned in its own country for decades). So Kurdish access to the Internet is restricted in Iran, but not more so than everybody else's.

Turkey is different, because of Turkish fears that the Kurdish part of the country, containing about a fifth of the population, will secede. The Turkish government, under the impetus of that fear and of the previous humiliation of the loss of the former Turkish Empire, for fifteen years implemented almost every counter-productive policy toward the Kurds that one could well think of, including arrests, paramilitary actions, forcible drafting of Kurds to fight Kurds, extra-judicial executions, torture, banning the Kurdish language, putting Kurdish children into Turkish-only "boarding schools", and imprisoning a duly elected Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament for violating Article 81 of the Law on Political Parties, which forbids mention of racial or religious minorities. "Leyla Zana, a HEP deputy, appeared wearing the 'Kurdish colours' (red, yellow and green) in her hair and announced in Kurdish that she was taking her parliamentary oath in Turkish under protest." Kurds in Turkey were not allowed to watch satellite TV shows in Kurdish. And after all of that, the Turkish government was surprised that Kurds wanted to secede even more.

Under EU pressure Turkey began lightening up on the Kurds in 2002, legalizing the language and lifting some other repressive laws. The EU has stated that Turkey cannot move to the next stage in the process of joining the EU until these laws are seen to be implemented fully. With the prospect of enforceable civil rights, the Kurds have given up armed conflict and entered a purely political struggle. Who would have thought? Not the Turks, anyway.

Syria is in some ways worse for the Kurds. The Syrian government treats about 200,000 of their Kurds as stateless non-persons. These people have no citizenship, cannot get birth certificates or passports, cannot send their children to school, cannot get government jobs, and face denial of many other human rights.

In stark contrast the Kurds in Iraq have been self-governing for more than a decade, and had Internet cafes in cities and many towns while Arab Iraqis could get Internet access only in Baghdad and only under heavy security surveillance and numerous restrictions. For example, e-mail was not permitted, and many sites were blocked. There is currently one public Internet access point in Baghdad, and no others in Arab Iraq at all. The Occupation forces don't forbid access, but neither are they doing anything to make access available.

The Indian government cut off Internet service in Jammu and Kashmir in January 2002 as an "anti-terrorist" measure, but restored it in June 2002.

It wouldn't surprise me to hear of other instances of laws depriving minorities of access to the Internet. If you know of any, please send me the information and if possible a Web link to sources.

Intentional deprivation of access to information is a clear violation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights (See my post of yesterday), so it is time that somebody got organized to protest against it.

There are also countries that jail citizens for posting political messages on the Internet, notably China, Tunisia, and Vietnam.

We can't very well deploy Internet service in combat zones, such as Congo, Liberia, or Sudan, although the contending militaries could if they wanted to. But that is a topic for another day.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

Divisio Digitalis delenda est

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 26.

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

The Bangalore Declaration

Impact of Information Technology

  1. I.T. [Information Technology] holds a unique promise for women in developing countries to empower them to move beyond their traditionally assigned roles, and to help them to take their rightful place in society by active participation in all areas of the economy.

  2. Timely access to appropriate information and knowledge is the key to development, for both the individual and society.

  3. I.T. must be used to strengthen the role of the media in making democratic structures more participatory and transparent.

  4. The priority application of I.T. should be in the following three broad areas, namely, information access, communication and economic transactions, a few examples of which are given below:

    1. agriculture on a priority basis,

    2. improved access to primary and reproductive health care,

    3. access to reliable data for effective planning and administration at all levels, and

    4. low-cost communication to enable cooperation between people everywhere.

Among these rights, a lot has been done on education and free speech, but not as much on seeking and receiving information. This is what we have called the Digital Divide. You hear a lot about bridging the Digital Divide, but I don't like to think in those terms. We can't fulill the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Bangalore Declaration unless we obliterate the Digital Divide from the landscape and from our minds. If you have followed my drift in earlier postings, you will see that the economics of the Simputer allow us to do just that.

Certainly we can't do it all at once. Nobody could pay out a trillion dollars to give everybody on Earth a computer and net access, and even if we could raise the money, it would take a decade to build and install the equipment. Even then, we wouldn't have enough trained people to manage it all.

What can we do then? We can talk about putting one public-access computer into each of 100,000 villages at something under $1,000 each, including wireless connections, solar power, and some other necessary equipment. A program that costs $100,000,000 worldwide is well within the reach of many governments, several UN agencies, and a number of foundations. We know that it would be possible for microbanking organizations to do something similar, and in fact the Grameen Foundation's Village Computing Project is experimenting on this line. Expanding to the rest of the villages, however many of them there are, would then be straightforward. Those that couldn't get a land or local wireless connection could get satellite Internet for about $2,000 for a two-way, high-bandwidth dish and receiver.

Given a wireless network connecting most of the villages in the world, we can look at how to expand from there into the schools, the health system, government services, barking, and much more. We don't know how fast economic opportunities would grow to the point where people could buy their own computers, but we know that in many places it would happen, and that we would see a period of exponential growth in usage powered by expanding opportunities in education and jobs. How far forward that would carry the world economy, nobody can say. But we can foresee a point at which everybody who wants access to computers and the Internet can have it.

There will not be a day when we can hold the celebration for the demise of the Digital Divide around the world, any more than we have had such a day in any of the developed countries. In the US, for example, it just crept up on us, as a combination of increasing computer ownership, increasing geographic coverage by Internet services, and increasing public access to computers at libraries, employment offices, and other government services. Except for the most impoverished Indian reservations and the remotest rural communities, anybody in the US who wants to get on a computer can. It would be helpful to let people more people get on more of the time, especially in schools. With desktop Linux systems going for as little as $200, there is really no excuse any more for not providing them to all schoolchildren. So the remains of the Digital Divide, in the US at least, come down to politics rather than economics.

This political problem may well recur in other countries. But I'm not going to let that stop me. We know what to do now, so I've already started the celebration, and I'm just going to keep right on going. Care to join me?

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Humor in disaster

I have been hearing lately about several Middle-Eastern comedians and comedy troupes such as the Arabian Knights taking on some quite serious issues. Among them are Palestinian, Israeli, Iraqi, and Iranian comedians who make fun of the excesses post-9/11, or the vagaries of the current Peace Process, or Roadmap, or Both of You Sit in the Corner until You Are Willing to Play Nice Together program that somebody or other puts forward.

I greatly favor this development, especially in cases where supposed adversaries get together on the same bill or in the same sketch. We have had many examples in the past in the US, and it is one of the more promising cultural exports of our age. I think of Chevy Chase, as an interviewer, giving Richard Pryor, as a job applicant, a word association test.

Chase: Spear chucker.
Pryor: Honky.
Chase: Jungle bunny.
Pryor: Dead honky.

and so on.This approach works (for me, anyway) for 9/11, the total failure so far of reconstruction in Iraq, the Palestinian question, the former Yugoslavia, Burma, North Korea, Liberia, the Congo, Chechnya...well, maybe not Chechn

This is nothing new. See, for example, On the Damned Human Race, by Mark Twain, published posthumously

"...untimely laughter to stave off far more untimely tears."--James Branch Cabell, in Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, 1919

In the 1930s, they say, the Gestapo in Berlin, Germany, hired a Jew to carry a sign reading "Jews, get out! Make room for Germans." The Jew was so poor he took the job, but when he came back next week, the Gestapo refused to pay him, saying that none of them had seen him carrying the sign. "Oh, you just looked in the wrong place," explained the Jew. "I was carrying it around the Jewish cemetery."

Actually, in some places we are still recycling the same jokes.

"They're rioting in Africa,
There's strife in Iran.
What nature doesn't do to us
Will be done by our fellow man."
Merry Minuet
The Kingston Trio
Live from the Hungry i

"I got fired from the Post Office [beat] for putting mail for Alabama in the Foreign slot." Dick Gregory, in the 1960s

This next is one of mine.

In England they tell jokes about frog-eating Frenchman. In France they tell Belgian jokes. The Belgians have put-downs about the Dutch, the Dutch about the Germans, and the Germans about the Poles. Poland has a long line of black humor about Russian Communism, and a new line of putdowns about the current Russian economy. In Russia, they tell Armenian Radio jokes, and the Armenians have their own line of black humor about Turks, Azeris, and Persians, who in turn all put down the Arabs.

To Arabs, however, Jews are no laughing matter. We have to do something about that.

Now the Jews tell jokes on everybody, including themselves. Jews say that when you tell a joke to a Jew, he says, "Oh, that's an old one," and he can tell it better.

I wonder what the first Simputer joke will be. Suggestions?

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