Bhutan tests 'Simputer' for remote e-mail use

A Linux-based handheld designed by Indian engineers is being deployed in a pilot project in Bhutan to provide e-mail to people...

The Simputer, a Linux-based handheld computer designed by Indian engineers, is being deployed in a pilot project in Bhutan to provide e-mail to people living in remote locations, said an executive of the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union.

If the test is successful, the Simputer is likely to be deployed in similar projects in other countries, said VishnuMohan Calindi, administrator of the Universal Access and Rural Communications Unit in the Telecommunication Development Bureau of the ITU.

E-mail received by post offices in Bhutan, located between China and India, will be carried on the Simputer by a postal employee to addressees in villages. The villagers will be able to respond to e-mail using the Simputer with help of postal agents.

The e-mail service, called E-Post, complements traditional post under the project initiated by the ITU and the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in Berne. The project, implemented with Bhutan Post and Bhutan Telecom in Thimpu, India, aims to bring e-mail and other digital services to 38 Bhutan post offices.

Some of the remote post offices will be connected by a VSAT (very small aperture terminal) satellite service. About 17 of these post offices already have tele-kiosks on the premises where people can send and access e-mail.

However, women, farmers, the poor and those living great distances from post offices were significantly under-represented among postal clients, according to a survey carried out by the agencies involved in the project.

"If these groups are also to be served by e-post, then a simple portable electronic device that acts as an e-post carrier will be an invaluable asset," Calindi said.

The joint ITU and UPU project in Bhutan is a test bed for implementation of similar projects in other countries. "About 12 countries have already shown interest in this project," Calindi said.

"The success of this project will depend to a large extent on our ability to train the people at the post offices on the use of the technology and on the receptiveness of villagers to the e-mail concept."

The Simputer was selected by the ITU and UPU project because of its low cost, ability to integrate voice recognition, low power consumption and programmability for various applications. The plan is to have a variety of applications running on the Simputer to handle items such as agricultural information, health care data collection, simple accounting, bookkeeping, inventory management and land records.

"In our experience, it is important that the projects cater to multiple uses and feature multiple applications," said Calindi. "This is to make best use of scarce resources, as well as increase the chances of greater usage."

Although the project in Bhutan will, initially, use 50 Simputers, the product has great growth opportunity if the project is extended within Bhutan and to other countries, said Vinay Deshpande, chairman of Bangalore-based Encore Software, a Simputer licensee. 

The handheld computer was designed by engineers from Encore and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, and put into open source to be managed by the Simputer Trust. Since development of the product's prototype in 2001, Encore has sold only about 3,000 units, mainly because there are too few applications that run on the device, Deshpande said.

Encore has positioned the device commercially and for use to bridge the digital divide. The company introduced a variety of models, ranging from the low-end with a monochrome display, priced at about $200, to a high-end model with a colour display and support for Wi-Fi and GPS that costs about $480.

Approximately 75 independent software companies have developed Simputer applications, including some for e-governance, sales force automation and enterprise resource planning. Encore expects to sell more than 100,000 Simputers.

John Ribeiro writes for IDG News Service

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