Business Week writes how “SimDesk may be closing in on one of tech’s Holy Grails: anytime, anywhere computing on the cheap.”

For years, Microsoft, IBM, and others have painted visions of a future in which people could easily tap into their programs and information from whichever computer they happen to be using. But SimDesk is the first company to provide that promise in an ultra-affordable way. Individuals can log on to the SimDesk Web site, use basic programs, including word processing, e-mail, and spreadsheet packages, and store their stuff on the company’s computers — all for just a few dollars per person per year. There’s no need to spend $399 to buy Microsoft’s Office suite of applications.

Microsoft dismisses SimDesk as little more than a gnat in its soup. “They’re just another competitor,” says Dan Leach, group product manager for Microsoft Office Systems. And the company denies that it has resorted to any dirty tricks to compete with SimDesk.

Yet SimDesk can’t be shrugged off. Thanks mostly to a $5 million deal struck in 2001 with the city of Houston, around 200,000 residents have signed up for SimDesk’s service.

SimDesk isn’t for everyone. While its applications are compatible with Microsoft’s ubiquitous Word and Excel, they lack some of the bells and whistles — including so-called pivot-tables used by spreadsheet mavens to crunch data. More important, people who are used to instant response from PC software may have to wait seconds as even the simplest commands travel to SimDesk’s servers in Houston and back. “Most people want the instantaneous response that comes from having programs on the desktop, not some faraway server,” says Stephen Baker, analyst at market researcher NPD Group Inc.

Still, SimDesk is creating a buzz with customers, particularly in state and local governments. The company is in talks with public agencies in 31 states, as well as Japan, China, and Germany, for a variety of projects. Many see it as a way to cut their technology costs. By giving SimDesk to government workers who don’t need Microsoft’s full-blown Office, they can avoid those licensing fees and outsource some of their existing server operations to SimDesk. The city of Houston, for example, has begun shifting 13,000 employees to SimDesk, some via cheap disk-drive-less terminals rather than PCs. Such contracts attracted the attention of computer giant Hewlett-Packard Co., which may supply the hardware for the Indiana project, says one Indiana insider.

Other government agencies see SimDesk as a way to bring their PC-less masses into the Digital Age. Rather than pour money into PC buying programs, they can pay far less to sign up for SimDesk, and then provide access by setting up PCs at libraries, schools, and community centers. That way, even people who don’t own a PC can communicate electronically for free, type up rsums, and do homework. Since all the programs and data are stored on SimDesk’s own servers, it’s no muss and no fuss for government tech managers.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.