June 24, 2002

Indian company plans to release Simputer model this summer, evaluation kits available

-By Grant Gross -

The Simputer project -- with a goal of supplying low-cost, Linux powered portable computers to people in developing nations -- hasn't generated a lot of attention lately after getting tons of press last summer. But the lack of noise doesn't mean the project is dead -- although the original release date was targeted for March, a company working on the Simputer is hoping to push a pre-production model out the door late this summer.
Encore Software Limited of Bangalore, India, is now accepting orders for Simputer evaluation kits. Shashank Garg, v.p. of product development, says the company has sent out about 60 of the kits, and has requests for another 200. Those backorders are expected to be filled in four to six weeks, Garg says.

"While several have gone to developers in India, a reasonable number have been shipped to developers abroad," Garg says. "In fact, from the next lot, we will ship several more to
developers abroad. So there has been interest from all over the world."

Encore is planning for the Simputer to support English, plus a handful of Indian languages. Garg says he's expecting other developers to provider support for other languages.

The evaluation kits come in four models: monochrome with 32 MB RAM and 16 MB flash; color with 32 MB RAM and 16 MB flash; monochrome with 64 MB RAM and 32 MB flash; and color with 64 MB RAM and 32 MB flash.

Garg says the original March release date ended up being overly optimistic, and the Simputer team had some coding and design issues that pushed back the release.

While the project was original organized around the Simputer Trust non-profit, its .org site appears inactive, with a March release date still listed. Email to the contract person at that site bounced back, and the last news article about Simputer listed there is from January. But the Simputer mailing list remains active, and Garg says Encore, one of the original contributors to the project, is pushing toward its commercial release.

Encore is one of the early commercial licensees of the Simputer, but Garg says the company is open to partnerships with software providers and resellers. His company is also planning to provide customized embedded solutions to some clients.

Simputer made headlines last summer, when it was announced as a hardware alternative for people in developing nations. A ZDNet story in January reported the projected price to be around $200, but Garg now says the price should range from $250 to $400. The model mentioned in the ZD story only had 32MB of RAM, however.

The Simputer is slightly larger than a Palm handheld, making it conveniently portable and easy to share among a group of villagers, and it has features like a Smart Card reader that set it apart from some other handhelds. But that price may not be the extremely low-cost alternative that many news reports have made it out to be. Low-end, low-RAM Palms without wireless connectivity list for under $200, while low-end desktop systems at Walmart.com with LindowsOS preloaded (but no monitor) list for as low as $299.

"The cost is really a function of the volumes we can attain," Garg says. "Another thing is that we have gone substantially beyond the initial spec, which has increased the cost
a bit."

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