The User Interface is an area which has tremendous scope of improvement. Todays interfaces (both Windows and the Linux Desktops of KDE and GNOME) follow similar approaches using files, directories, menus and icons. Little has changed in the user interface arena over the past decade. For the villagers and especially the younger generation, one could learn from the success of video games and create richer and more interactive interfaces, which are more far intuitive to use for those with very limited exposure to computers.
The clients should also support multimedia with the use of webcams and microphones for recording and playback of audio and video. This is important in the context of the villagers because they may not easily adapt to the largely text-driven world that we exist in today. Using multimedia also gets over the language and usability barriers. It is what Prof. Ramesh Jain terms as folk computing.
In addition, over time, the thin clients should be able to accept voice input also this will entail leveraging innovations in speech recognition. To a small extent, we are already seeing this happen in cellphones in India, with an increasing array of interactive voice services.
As far as possible, the TeleInfoCentre should be able to work in the offline mode that is, its dependence on Internet connectivity should be minimal. The server should mirror key applications and relevant data, making it possible for the clients to work without the need for an Internet connection. In fact, even the assumption that a TeleInfoCentre may have a few hours of Internet connectivity daily could be far-fetched. This makes the application development challenging, but it becomes an important pre-requisite given the realities of Rural India.
The offline mode entails updating through CD (or an alternate such device eg. USB Memory Key). A CD will get written daily at the village TeleInfoCentre which has the days emails and requests which cannot be served locally. This CD would then be sent by courier or through the postal system to the next level in the hierarchy, which is likely to have better Net connectivity. Similarly, a CD from there would bring updates to the village.
Over time, solutions like WiFi will solve the wide area network (WAN) connectivity bottleneck. The advantage of WiFi is that it used open spectrum in the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz bands. The specifications are outlined in the IEEE 802.11 standards, which specify operating speeds of 11-54 Mbps. The computer industry, led by Intel, is rapidly adopting WiFi as a wireless LAN standard, driving down incremental costs to near-zero. Companies like Vivato are also working to extend the range of WiFi beyond a few hundred metres. While WiFi may not be a reality today in India, it is definitely going to be a workable and affordable solution within the next 18-24 months.
In fact, in India, Media Lab Asia has tested WiFi solutions which work over 20-30 kms (line-of-sight, with directional antennae on towers). Another solution which is being tested is DakNet, where a mobile van goes from village to village and offers connectivity while it is there. But these solutions are still in the R&D stage. Todays reality entails serious consideration of offline usage.
Next Week: Transforming Rural India (continued)