Are low-cost computing initiatives coming of age?

Are low-cost computing initiatives coming of age?
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First Published: Wed, Mar 25 2009. 12 13 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Mar 25 2009. 12 13 AM IST
Bangalore: On a recent Saturday, Patrick Christopher walked into a bustling Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, or BSNL, customer care centre in north Bangalore looking to pay his telephone bill. By the time he was done, he had also signed up for a new computing service, the Nova netPC.
The company behind the service, Chennai’s Novatium Net Solutions Pvt. Ltd, launched its computing-as-a-utility service in 2007, but it’s only recently, after tweaking the technology and a nationwide partnership with state-owned telecom company BSNL and other operators, that this has taken off.
Novatium’s, it emerges, is just one of three high-profile hardware or hardware-oriented efforts that started slowly but now seem to have hit their stride.
Also See Nova netPC (PDF)
The other two are PicoPeta Simputer Ltd’s hand-held computing device, the Simputer, and Encore Software Ltd’s mobile computing device, the Mobilis.
In all three instances, the companies have had to refine their original strategies, sometimes even tweak the product or service on offer.
Also See Mobilis (PDF)
The Simputer, under a new owner, has emerged in a new avatar as a device that companies, even governments, can use to stay in touch with people in the field. And the Mobilis is set for a retail launch.
All three companies seek to redefine computers or the computing experience from the way most people currently understand the two.
For instance, the Rs10,000 sign-up cheque that Christopher cut that Saturday will give him an LCD monitor (optional), some peripherals and a Nova Navigator, an access device that will connect to a remote server via broadband to give him, and his family, a range of computing experience, all for a monthly fee. Two years after its launch, the company has a mere 7,000 customers, but that could at least double in the next year.
Also See GeoAmida (PDF)
Novatium is rolling out its network computer or netPC—all the software and applications reside in the server and are accessed over the Internet as compared with a PC where much of it resides in the box—in three-four cities every month.
“We intend to have a pan-India presence in four-five months,” says Alok Singh, chief executive of Novatium, which has lately seen a monthly addition of 800-1,000 customers. It’s mostly BSNL that it is bundling its services with but, in some places, it has signed up with Tata Tele Services Ltd and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, another state-owned telecom operator.
Novatium says its services are primarily targeted at 45-50 million first-time computer users or cybercafe goers who don’t have a computer at home and can use this with the ease of an appliance, just like a television. “There is nothing in computing that you can’t do with this,” Singh says.
Countering the arguments that netPC is after all not cheap, Rajesh Jain, co-founder of Novatium and founder, managing director of Netcore Solutions Pvt. Ltd, says this device aims at changing the concept of computing itself. “You can’t take a computer and sell it cheaply.”
Simply positioning devices as poor man’s computer didn’t quite work in the past.
In fact, Simputer, in 2001, was the first honest effort to address the technological needs of developing countries. “It was the first device designed for a completely different market as opposed to every computer that was in existence in 2001; all subsequent efforts, Intel’s Classmate PC, AMD’s “50x15” program, Novatium and the now dead One Laptop Per Child, were followers of the direction set by the Simputer project,” says Swami Manohar, one of the four founders of the start-up PicoPeta Simputers. PicoPeta was acquired by mobile and wireless application provider Geodesic Ltd in 2006 for Rs20 crore (in cash and stock).
From a pure technology perspective, Simputer was a “roaring success”, claims Manohar. It was the first commercial hand-held device to use the accelerometer to sense movement. This is the technology that enables a device to change from landscape to portrait mode when the device is rotated, something which Microsoft flaunted in its Windows Mobile in 2006 and which Apple Inc.’s Steve Jobs “introduced as the first feature of iPhone”, Manohar adds.
The use of handwriting on every application screen is another first, across any device, hand-held or tablets, and so is the use of a flash memory stick to have “hot-sync” of new applications and data, along with a host of other software package management. But, from the market point of view, Simputer fell woefully short of target. Manohar partly blames the media for prematurely “taking it to the town in 2001” and then writing it off.
But even when it was officially launched as Amida 4200 by PicoPeta in 2004, it didn’t catch the fancy of customers and ended up as just another option for the urban market. “Yes, Amida 4200 was a failure; but if you ask me is Simputer a failure, I’d say we don’t know yet,” says Manohar, who is now chief strategy and intellectual property officer at Geodesic.
These devices were in many ways ahead of their times as we did not have the today’s ubiquitous telecom infrastructure then, says Vinay Deshpande, founder, chairman and chief executive of Encore, which co-developed Simputer and later marketed its own hand-held, branded as Encore Simputer, 6,000 of which are in use today. Soon after, the company launched its mobile computer, Mobilis.
Since its launch in May 2005, 3,000 units of Mobilis have been deployed all over the world but the device somehow hasn’t yet succeeded in reaching the rural Indian market.
Even after the initial tepid market response, these tech innovators haven’t hung up their boots. On the contrary, the early setbacks have been worth learning from. All three products were taken back to the drawing boards and are now being repositioned in the market.
Soon after its launch, Nova Navigator hit a roadblock because it required high bandwidth at the customers’ end. But now the system works like a PC even at a minimum network speed of 64 kbps (kilo bits per second), and developers claim it even improves the efficiency of the broadband.
“In streaming video, the device’s performance is better than a PC as the inbuilt intelligence gives priority to the user input and shuts other applications, unlike in a PC which is controlled by the operating system,” Novatium’s Singh says.
Meanwhile, Geodesic has used the core technologies of Simputer for a totally new product line. Called GeoAmida, the hand-held has been repositioned as an enterprise product with point-of-transaction services in banking, e-governance, and the corporate sector, wherever companies have to connect with their field force.
“We have a reasonably rich repertoire of services, including biometric authentication and secure smart-card reader to make the device functional even for illiterate population,” says Arnab Ganguly, associate vice-president, sales and business development, at Geodesic in Mumbai.
GeoAmida is currently being tested for automating the public distribution system in Karnataka.
Some 100 devices will be deployed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh in April. The government is trying to reach out to 600 million people, or 150 million households, under its financial inclusion programme, says Ganguly, who plans to deploy 20,000 units by 2009.
“In rural banking, each ‘business correspondent’ is supposed to reach out to 1,000 people, and will need one device. That amounts to 600,000 units,” says Ganguly, even as he reels out several state government initiatives in the country where the device would be a natural fit, including New Delhi’s “Mission Convergence” where each New Delhi resident will be given a smart card to avail of government services.
It’s interesting to see that Simputer, a device originally meant to bridge the digital divide and whose initial failure was partly attributed to a lack of government support, is once again falling back on the government, though under different circumstances. “These products, in order to succeed, will have to tie up with government programmes to create small or medium business models,” says Diptarup Chakraborti, principal research analyst at research firm Gartner Inc. “This is the reality of hardware industry.”
Without the marketing support, driving new computing concepts is not easy, as merely being cheap won’t suffice, he insists. “You ask someone on the street what is Novatium and it’s quite likely he’ll associate it with a medicine brand.”
But Encore’s Deshpande has unpleasant memories of the days when Simputer got shortlisted for most government programmes but never won any contracts, not even when a parliamentary committee decided to give hand-helds to its members. “We were high on the list but lost out to iPAQ (a hand-held device from Hewlett-Packard Co.) which was doubly priced.”
In the event, he has kept Mobilis independent of any such risky support and is signing up with a Pune-based company to enter the Indian retail market. Deshpande refuses to disclose the name of the company, but says the aim is to sell 100,000 units in the fiscal year 2010.
“We are actually doing much better overseas,” says Deshpande, rattling off names of at least 10 countries where the 900g computer is deployed under various pilots.
He is close to signing “large” deals with agencies in Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa, and even as he refuses to give away the size of the deals, he concedes: “These will be dramatic numbers for India.”
Novatium’s Jain, too, thinks these products and services should thrive independent of government support. He has a value-added-services road map for the Nova NetPC, but admits that the road is ridden with challenges.
“We need to get into a large number of services, create newer mechanisms for micro-billing…something akin to Apple’s App Store where others can start offering services for as little as Rs10-20 and create new revenue streams,” Jain says.
That sure needs a national presence. Singh says a brand-building campaign will begin in next three-four months, by which time the service would be available in 30-40 cities.
Years after they first came on the scene—two in the case of the Nova netPC; around eight in the case of the Simputer—the three offerings finally seem to be on the path to success.
“The success or failure of a technology like the Simputer cannot be gauged in two years or five years” says Manohar.
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First Published: Wed, Mar 25 2009. 12 13 AM IST