Simputer and the Mass Market Internet

A story in the Financial Express Simputer’s A Year Old, But No One’s Celebrating: “The fate of the much-hyped Indian portable computing device, Simputer, is hanging fire as it awaits commercial acceptance over a year after its launch….Only around 200 Simputers have been sold so far and most of them are being used either in small pilot projects or in research activities.”

In 2000, I had looked at low-cost devices to help create a mass market in India. In fact, my first Tech Talk talked about the vision of using low-cost devices to provide Internet access to 100 million Indians.

The vision is right, the problem lies in how we implement it. The approach many Indian companies are taking is to look at reverse-engineering PDAs and reducing their Bill of Materials. I had treaded along a similar path. My realisations were that (a) it would be extremely difficult to bring the cost down for anything which is custom-created to less than USD 200-250 (Rs 10-12,000) initially (b) the process is very time-consuming and expensive because manufacturing is done typically in Taiwan (c) initial investments are large because one has to look at volumes of 5-10,000 units or more.

My opinion is that for a mass market device to succeed in India the price-point has to be Rs 5-6,000. By selling at double this, the current set of devices limit their market and will only find niche applications.

When I see multiple companies going down this path, I get the feeling that we are trying to focus on the invention rather than solving the need. Yes, there is a great joy in holding an Indian-made device running Indianised versions of Linux (in local languages) but at what cost?

Lets think like entrepreneurs rather than researchers. We need to build the computing base in India first. We need to play to our strengths — which lie less in hardware, and more in software. We need to bootstrap this process — without investing too much money or spending too much time.

This is the thinking that led me to abandon the custom-PDA/device option and focus on leveraging older computers as Thin Clients. These PCs (and I have one on my desk) work just fine for the limited set of applications that most people will ever need to do. The price point for a 3-year-old PC (including colour monitor) is Rs 6-7,000.

Even in India, we can easily generate a base of 1 million second-hand PCs. If we need more, import them from the US or get NRIs to donate them. Volumes are not a problem. And in no case will the price point go beyond USD 150. Focus on writing the software applications on this platform.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.