Translational Research, Innovation
Bridging the Digital Divide with a People’s Computer
“The most significant innovation in computer technology in 2001 was not Apple’s gleaming titanium Powerbook G4 or Microsoft’s Windows XP. It was the Simputer, a Net-linked, radically simple portable computer, intended to bring the computer revolution to the third world.”
— Bruce Sterling, NY Times Magazine, December 9, 2001 “The Year in Ideas”
The Simputer project grew out of a multi-disciplinary dialogue conducted at the National Institute of Advanced Studies by its director Prof R Narasimha, the venerated social anthropologist Prof MN Srinivas and a dynamic young IAS officer Sanjay Biswas who was the IT Secretary of Karnataka in 1998. The topic was information technology and development.
The Simputer (Simple Inexpensive Multilingual Peoples compUTER) was about building a people’s computer based on the principle of “radical simplicity for universal access”. A 7-layer mother board designed from scratch, linux operating system ported to minimal hardware, icon driven and touch screen based user interface, smart card integrated for secure financial transactions, Indian languages enabled including text-to-speech in several Indian languages, an open source and viral hardware and software specification, a built in accelerometer (the first handheld to have one) to have motion control – the Simputer was simply a marvel of indigenous technology – perhaps more than a bit ahead of its time.
As one of the inventors of the Simputer, Professor Chandru received the Dewang Mehta Award from MCIT, the first time it was awarded in 2001 (the nation’s highest award for innovation in information technology). Chandru also co-founded PicoPeta Simputers, a private limited company that commercialized the novel handheld device technology and brought it to market as the Amida Simputer. He participated actively in its conception and early growth, and continued to serve as an advisor till its successful acquisition by a publicly traded company. PicoPeta was earlier listed among the “seven hottest startups worldwide” by Technology Review magazine in 2002.
Over 50,000 Simputers have been manufactured and deployed in India. The product has since been called Geo Amida and was one of the primary devices in conjunction with the Micro ATM application of the national unique ID “Aadhaar” project. Chandru was the recipient of the Hari Om Trust Award for contributions to “Science and Society” given by the University Grants Commission in 2003. The Simputer was not a roaring retail success but is certainly an important “meme” in the technological history of modern India. It was only the second time that a computer had been conceived and built in India (TIFRAC – the TIFR Advanced Calculator was the earlier effort in the late 50s) from scratch.
- V. Chandru, V.L. Deshpande, S. Garg, R. Hariharan, S. Manohar, M. Mathias, V. Vinay (The Simputer Trust), Radical Simplicity for Universal Access, dyd01 Development by Design, MIT Media Lab, July 2001.
- Chandru,V and S Manohar, The Global Village: Aspirations and Opportunities for Developing Economies (October 1998), NIAS Report.
- V. Chandru, The Simputer Meme and Sustainable Development, in Proceedings of the CCC Workshop on Computer Science and Global Development, Berkeley, CA pages 25-26 (2009).