Simputer--not just your poor man's PC

The maker of the Simputer, a low-cost, Linux-based device, is trying to shake its image of just being a device for poverty-stricken countries.

When you think of the Simputer, the low-cast, Linux-based handheld device, do you see images of farmers, fields and cows?

Then you have been laboring an inaccurate public image, according to the chief executive of the company making it.

The Linux-powered handheld device, heralded in the media as a breakthrough that would bring computing down to the village, is more than a poor man's PC, said Ravi Desiraju.

"It the beginning, it was portrayed as a computer for the common man. They had pictures of farmers in India holding it, but it was for publicity," said Desiraju, CEO of Encore Technologies, the Singapore-based company designing, making and selling the handheld.

The idea for the Simputer was first proposed in India. Encore's own Web site holds press clippings with headlines such as "Computers for the Third World", "India's simple computer for the poor" and "New handheld aims to bridge digital divide."

After two years of such pre-publicity, Encore launched the device in October 2002. Since then, the firm has tried to shake off the Simputer's rustic image and move it upmarket, selling the handheld as a do-anything platform that can be transformed into any kind of portable computer.

But in the last two years, handhelds from major makers such as Palm and HP have gained in features and dropped in price, factors which some have said undermined the reason for the Simputer's existence.

Desiraju, however, pointed out that the Simputer is very different from a PDA. Such handhelds are just accessories to the PC, whereas a fully configured Simputer can replace a desktop, he said.

"For the cost of one PC, you can buy five Simputers," he said. It is also far cheaper than other handhelds designed for vertical markets, thanks to the use of royalty-free hardware, the open-source Linux operating system and low capital costs of the founding companies, he said.

Desiraju had on hand a paperback-sized Simputer Web server. The device's mainboard, memory, processor and Linux operating system is so customizable, he explained, that it can be configured as a tiny server that converts a stand-alone industrial machine into one that can be managed and configured remotely, over the Internet or by dial-up.

In another mode, the Simputer can become a thin client by adding a keyboard and external monitor. The Simputer cannot be purchased in stores, but is sold as part of a business solution.

In India, Simputers are used to verify the identities of drivers involved in traffic offenses, said Desiraju. The drivers' smart-chip ID cards are read through a built-in slot on the Simputer.

In the same country, banks send out staff armed with Simputers. They visit villages where they collect customers' microsavings--amounts of a few U.S. cents each time--and log the entries with the customer's smart cards.

This method eliminates the problem of cheating by bank staff, some of whom siphoned money from illiterate customers by tampering with paper records, he said.

And in Singapore, restaurant waiters are using Simputers as wireless order-taking terminals, while in Malaysia, gas meter readers use it to capture customers' gas usage.

So far, about 2,000 Simputers have been shipped to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Europe and the United States. Desiraju expected 2,000 more to ship before the end of the year. The signs are good for the long-term health of the device, said Desiraju. He was speaking to CNETAsia on the sidelines of the 2nd Asia Open Source Software symposium held this week.