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Vijay Chandru places his pocketbook-sized computer gently on the table. The computer scientist from the Indian Institute of Science believes this gray box could be the future of personal computing in his country. Costing about the same as a handheld computer, Chandru’s “Simputer” has much of a PC’s functionality. And if he and his colleagues at PicoPeta Simputers are right, that combination of power and affordability will help make information technology far more accessible in the developing world.

The idea for the cheap and easy-to-use computer got off the ground in early 1999 when Chandru and three of his colleagues at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore teamed up with the CEO and two vice presidents from a local software firm to form the nonprofit Simputer Trust. A year and a half later, the Simputer made its debut. The Linux-based device is slightly larger than a Palm but has ten times the processing speed. It can operate in four different languages (three Indian languages and English), play MP3 files, send and receive e-mail, and browse the Web. A touch screen, a graphical interface and a speech synthesis program that reads text aloud could allow nonliterate people to use the computer with ease; while a smart-card system lets multiple users share the device.

The projected cost of the device is less than $200. “I don’t know anyone else in the world who is producing a comparable sophisticated computer at this price,” says MIT sociologist of science Kenneth Kenniston. The low cost is possible, in part, because the inventors relied on a nonproprietary operating system and other free software. Unlike a PC, which might cost four times as much, the computer stores data on an inexpensive “flash” card instead of a hard drive, and it uses a more affordable-albeit slower-processor.

In May, the four trustees from the Indian Institute of Science founded for-profit PicoPeta Simputers to commercialize the new machine. PicoPeta is seeking half a million dollars in angel funding to build and field-test a few hundred prototype Simputers. If these prototypes drum up enough business, PicoPeta will seek $5 million in venture capital to manufacture the machines; the company’s aim is to have a marketable product ready by year’s end.

The trust also plans to license the technology to any company that wishes to commercialize the Simputer. Firms in developing nations will pay a one-time fee of $25,000 to the trust, and those in industrial nations will pay ten times that. With one billion people living in India, Chandru has few worries about other manufacturers and sees no shortage of customers to keep PicoPeta profitable.

Chandru thinks the Simputer might find its first application in the country’s ubiquitous telephone kiosks, since “in India, the average middle-class family won’t be able to afford one of these.” Each user could swipe his smart card through the machine to retrieve personal information, do banking and send e-mail. Farmers could access market prices online to gain greater negotiating power with middlemen. And health-care workers in remote areas could look up medical information. Already, organizations in India and abroad have expressed interest in using the devices for applications ranging from transportation management to rural banking. Starting next spring, Chandru hopes, his small gray box will become familiar to more and more people in India.

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