June 19, 2001

Simputer's Ajit Anvekar: Keeping up the Open Source 'josh'

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people -

Ajit R. Anvekar didn't grow up with a computer, in fact, he bought
his own PC only about two years ago, but he has already contributed to one
of the best examples of Open Source's potential effect on the digital
divide. The Simputer (Simple In-expensive
Multi-lingual People's Computer) is a pocket-size computer, running
Linux, that is designed to overcome traditional barriers to computing, like
literacy, by offering a "simple and natural user interface based on
sight, touch and audio."

Anvekar worked for the Simputer Project in the Computer Science Automation
(CSA) Department of the Indian Institute
of Science
(IISc) as a software programmer/systems specialist until
last month, when the Simputer's specs were released. Now he is with Picopeta
Simputers, which plans to commercialize the platform.

Interested in embedded systems, Anvekar signed up with Simputer to work
on the audio driver, a key element considering "the use of extensive audio
in the form of text-to-speech and audio snippets" is proclaimed to be one
of the three main advantages Simputer boasts over other handhelds. (The
other two are its smart card reader and its XML-based Information Markup
Language.)

He first learned to write code in the early '90s while earning a
Bachelor's degree in engineering in electronics and communication from
Siddaganga Institute of Technology in
Tumkur, India. He spent six months at the Electronics and Radar Development
Establishment (LRDE) at the Defense
Research and Design Organization
(DRDO) in Bangalore on project work for his
degree.

"The project involved writing Assembly code for a micro-controller to
test out the suitability of a communication link for reliable transmission.
LRDE had a board designed for the purpose and we were let loose on the
board.

"We wrote a lot of routines for the particular processor. It gave
us a clear understanding as to how systems work, what actually goes on in
getting them to work and what an exhilarating feeling -- the board actually runs
our software and it works! It was the first time we came in contact with
real machines and also that the theory they taught in college really had
some relation to what was going on in real life."

"After graduation I joined a project called Education and Research
Network (ERNET) here [in Bangalore] at the Indian Institute of Science.
As with most educational institutions, Linux was/is thriving here."

He got his first real taste of Linux while there working on the Wide Area Link Emulator
(WALE).

He says he has "never used proprietary software actively at all,"
and he finds his Open Source leanings are confirmed by the consistently more
learned and practical technicians who use it.

It is not uncommon to be an IT worker of Indian descent but it
is a bit unusual to be an IT worker of Indian descent working in India. But
Anvekar has decided to stay close to home.

His name, Anvekar, comes from Anve, a town in Goa, a small beach-side state just
north of Karnataka. But Ajit's Anvekars have lived mostly in or around
Bangalore, Karnataka's capital.
Soon after he was born in 1972 in Karwar, Karnataka, his family moved back
to Bangalore, leaving for only a few years before returning again to
Bangalore, where Anvekar now lives with his retired parents, neither of which worked
in the IT industry.

He has never been to the United States but he admires its energy for
innovation. He admits that access to technology is currently difficult in India but
he is confident, coming off of a project potentially pushing India's
industry to the forefront, that as long as people maintain the "josh," which he
explains as Hindi for spirit/fire/enthusiasm, technology will continue
to evolve effectively.

He says if he had not gone into computing he would have been in the
auto industry. He still hopes to take some classes on weekends and
eventually set up his own Formula Cars brand. "But nowadays," he concedes,
"nobody can do without a computer."

And that's what the Simputer just may accomplish. It is small,
portable, can run on three AAA batteries, and uses a smartcard that allows the
device to be shared by entire communities.

With the Simputer, explains the text at Simputer.org, "The village
school, a kiosk, a village postman, or even a shopkeeper should be able
to loan the device to individuals for some length of time and then pass it
on to others in the community. The Simputer, through its Smart Card
feature allows for personal information management at the individual level for
an unlimited number of users.

"The impact of this feature coupled with the rich connectivity of
the Simputer can be dramatic. Applications in diverse sectors such as micro
banking, large data collection, agricultural information and as a
school laboratory is now made possible at an affordable price."

The recent release has been covered in a lot of the major media
outlets in India including the Times of
India

which reported, "With Linux operating system, 32-bit CPU, 32 MB DRAM,
Boot ROM, touch screen, pretty-good-privacy encryption software and in-built
modem among other features, the device takes the cake for smartcard
reader/writer." The article promised revolutionary changes in banking and e-commerce with the Simputer.

The story continued: "Slated to be priced at Rs 9,000 (US$200), Simputer extensively uses
widely available free public domain software, both for operating and
developing customized applications. 'Once the product is launched, we
will
also publish the application programming interfaces to enable others to
develop applications for the device. The hardware design will be open
and
extensible so that any licensee can add value to the platform,' the
IISc
team added."

I was in India in 1993 but I was not learning to write code.
Instead, we walked through provincial streets, negotiating in Hindi with grossers
over their carts of colorful fruits and vegetables. It was beautiful and
fascinating but considering that the most interesting technology in Udaipur amounted to a
complex system of open sewers and the earthen mugs the chai-guy would fill with
sweet and milky spiced tea and offer us between the bars on the train
windows, we concentrated more on the past than on the future.

But now, eight years later, as I follow up my communications with
Anvekar, by searching the Web I find each detail represented by a vast array of
English language sites built (or commissioned) by corresponding local
governments or institutions.

I doubt that Udaipur has changed very much since I explored its
streets, but I am thankful for being reminded of the awe-inspiring contrast
offered by a country so vast and old as India. And I find the notion that the
same villages we toured with the accompanying organizations
working with the local community to eradicate simple yet highly
repercussive health issues, should be armed with Simputers.

I'm not at all suggesting cynicism. On the contrary, if these
computers move beyond urban areas and into the remotest of rural areas, wouldn't
it be interesting to see villages gain access to computers before they are
infiltrated by television? Grass-roots organizations able to add smart cards to their
micro-banking tutorials? Rural craftsman able to track their products
electronically?

The Simputer is an idea with a myriad of ground-breaking possibilities.

Anybody who, like Anvekar, is romantic enough to find Judy Garland
fascinating, undoubtedly possesses the proper amount of imagination and
romanticism to foster the "josh" necessary to maximize the benefits and
continue to develop these new technologies.

More About Ajit Anvekar

Mail Reader: Pine.

Editor: vi

Linux distribution: "Mostly Red Hat, though lately I have been using
Debian/Progeny and liking it for a start."

Snack food: Burgers

Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

Book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig; As the Crow flies by Jeffery Archer; Illusions by Richard Bach.

Sport: Long-distance bicycle riding.

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