By Frederick Noronha
Freelance Journalist and a founder of Bytesforall.

Sitting in the palm of one hand, this small computing device that promises to emerge out of Bangalore has generated a mix of hope and pessimism that few hardware products from India ever have. But will the Simputer work as promised?

Fighting back naysayers and pessimists, the teams working on the Simputer – a simple, inexpensive, multilingual computing device that could help take the benefits of IT to the masses – are working on determinedly.

Not surprisingly, after years of evoking surprise and garnering headlines even while on the drawing-boards, the fatigue is beginning to show. For some, the finish-line seems close. To others, the disappointment of the Simputer in meeting its dates of being available for sale sometime at end-2001 is only further proof that this product is indeed ‘vapourware’.

On the Yahoogroups! mailing-list set up for the Simputer project, over a thousand members watch-on hopefully. But the inability of techies – and especially techies from this part of the globe – to explain things to a non-technical audience might have left everyone guessing what’s going on.

Some months down the line, we’ll know who’s right. But what’s at stake is not just a promised product, but rather a valiant battle to drastically shift the turf in the debate over what role IT should play in India.

It helped make the point that affordable solutions for countries like India will have to come from countries like India itself. That Indians have the skill and talent, if not the optimism. And that the right vision can play a massive role in taking us that critical inch closer to finding our own long-neglected solutions.

The story of the Simputer is not just one about its price (though this is an important issue, as stressed below), and whether it could keep to its promised production schedule or not. There are, in fact, many other vital issues that come up.

But while the Simputer experiment is being watched closely across the globe, a certain amount of impatience is visible from within India itself.

In early March 2002, Reuter reported that the low-cost handheld computer developed by seven Indian engineers to take the Internet to rural masses will start rolling out in May. Originally expected to cost $200, it would now cost $50 more, Vinay Deshpande, chief executive of Bangalore-based Encore Software, was quoted as having told the international news agency.

In India, critics of the Simputer project point to the delays in it hitting the market, the inability to stick to the promised US$200 price level, and some question whether the product would click at all.