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Simple Inexpensive Mobile Computer: The Simputer 114

Posted by timothy
from the one-piece-of-puzzle dept.
Sachin Karol links to this Time Asia report about the Simputer. A snippet from the article: "It's not a PC, but rather a microcomputer, a "Simple Inexpensive Mobile Computer." In short, a Simputer. It's the latest attempt to reach a kind of techno-humanist grail: a computer priced and designed for the billions of people who have yet to set foot in the wired wards of the Global Village. A computer, say its creators, for the masses." (Read more.)

A week ago, the prototype Simputer was successfully demonstrated at Bangalore's National Institute of Advanced Science. Here are some pictures from an earlier demonstration of Simputer prototypes; there is a section on the Simputer site which is supposed to show details about the architecture, but which promises more information by September of last year; there is information about the guts of the machine in the FAQ, though.

Sounds like a potentially useful tool, but how much impact do you think such a computer could have on the other problems faced by rural Indians? How much of the balance can be swung by such a device?

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Simple Inexpensive Mobile Computer: The Simputer

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    We live in a unique time when everything that can be invented HAS been invented. Everything is invented, it just hasn't been properly marketed yet.

    There are only two things that haven't been invented yet:

    1) A decent moderation system.
    2) A way to saciate your mom's varacious sexual appetite.

    No one is working on the first one. I, however, am devoting serious research on number 2. Not item number two in the list above, mind you, but I just spend alot of time sitting on the crapper. But there is a team of about 634 guys who work on #2 in the list above.

  • Why should we bother feeding the poor when people are dying of AIDS? Why should be bother curing AIDS when people are dying of cancer? The silly assumption you seem to have made is that everyone on the planet should stop what they are doing and fix your paticular pet problem. Let me clue you in: 45 billion people can work on lots of different things AT ONCE. Sure you cannot eat cheap computers, but they are great for spreading information (and power) to those people in between bill gates and absolute poverty. "People are starving in Africa(TM)" is not a good to put off making anyone's life better.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    A computer for the masses, would that mean it's a "computer for the rest of us"?

    I find this is a solution for a problem that does not exist. My parents only recently got a computer, that's because my siblings and I bought it for them. They use it for gaming (solitaire mostly), and e-mail. They still tally the books on the farm with pen, paper and a desk calculator. Computer makers may find this hard to believe but many people find little need for a multipurpose computer (like your average Mac, PC, or PDA). But many people love special purpose computers, like calculators, ATMs, etc., etc.

    I expect that if this is going to sell it better be damn cheap, as in free or nearly so.
  • I agree with the sentiment that hungry third-worlders would benefit more from food (go GM crops!) than computers.
    But not all third-worlders are starving. Pacific islands such as New Guinea have no shortage of food. In fact, almost everywhere in the lowlands, you're likely to find fruits and edible roots and a decent source of meat in wild pig, fish, bird, grubs. And in the highlands, the climate is so perfect for growing temperate veggies that they export to the lowlands. (this isn't to say that there's no malnutrition... there is, but that can be worked on through education, i.e. four major foodgroups, etc.)
    But what they lack in their transition to "first-worldness" is access to more affordable technology. Australia can supply all they need (to Papua New Guinea at least), but it's not always affordable. USD$200 is a shload of money, but there are quite a few that can afford it. Maybe not in rural areas, but there is a lot of migration as well-to-do "urbanites" visit their native rural bush villages and share some of the wealth with their people. Just imagine how a kid would benefit from having access to a little computer, even if it's shared... that kid develops marketable skills, he is exposed to some high-tech gadgetry and hopefully develops better literacy skills. He can work in an "office" and make decent money and give him a chance at higher education.
    Sure, like all development projects, you never know how it's gonna go (development is one of those fields where even hindsight isn't 20/20). But even if it flops, these little gadgets would probably be marketable in the first-world.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    How 'bout the name "Volksputer"?
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Why is it that whenever a third-world (TM) country does anything, the response is "but why not feed the poor/starving/etc.?" ?
    Listen people. Here are some statistics for you:
    • In 1999, 12 million children lived in households that did not have enough food and 2.7 million of these children lived in households that experienced hunger (3.8% of all children). (source: USDA)
    • Despite the booming economy, 31 million Americans continue to live in households without enough to eat and a third of these households contain adults or children who went hungry at some point in 1999. (source: USDA)
    For more facts, visit http://www.hungerfreeamerica.org/ [hungerfreeamerica.org]
    As you can see, a sizeable number of children and adults go hungry in the USofA. But that does not stop people from working on pie-in-the-sky projects. If a country waited to abolish hunger before embarking on any other project, they would still be in the stone age.
    The fact of the matter is, familiarity with computers (and the digital mode of operations) is a must for the workers of tomorrow. By giving kids access to this "Simputer", it will open their eyes to a whole new world. I'm willing to bet that many of us who were kids in the late 70s/early 80s got a big kick out of a Lisa/Commodore/Apple-][/Sinclair, and those toys of yesterday were what made us take up CS (or EE) as a degree. See, exposure to this stuff is important.

    Moreover, this "simputer" is not the be-all end-all; it is a first step in a journey towards making computers accessible to all. Maybe after looking at this simputer some scientist in Brazil will come up with a better/cheaper version; maybe after a few such iterations, in a couple of years, we will have el-cheapo sub-$100 'puter which will spread this "digital wealth" around to the rest of the world.

    And finally: $200 is not an unearthly sum for many Indians. India is ranked 5th in the world [photius.com] GDP Purchasing Power Parity.
    Look at it this way: India's pre-capita income in 1999 was $1800. This "simputer" is 1/9 of that, about 1.5 months of salary. This is within the reach of, say, 50% of the Indian families. That means, within reach of 500 million people!

  • From the trade show pictures, this looks a lot like some of the existing PocketPCs already available on the market. How is this going to be better (cheaper/faster/etc...) than the existing products? Unfortunatly the architecture page consisted of a logo and a "ready by 9/2000" comment.

    My biggest fear is that these people don't realize how complex lots of problems are, like how to provide a good interface for a variety of people. They may (like many computer language designers) try to sweep the complexity under someone elses rug under the guise of keeping it "simple". Will this thing have an programmers interface that requires you to do everything, or maybe hardware requirements that make even jaded manufacturers cringe? Or worse, are they going to force you to reinvent the wheel a lot by not including all of that "complexity".
    Apologies to Larry Wall for stealing that metaphor.

    Hopefully I'm way off base here and there was a link in there I didn't notice...

    Down that path lies madness. On the other hand, the road to hell is paved with melting snowballs.
  • There is no clear focus for any of it. Do you think the world would be better if those engineers worked on a farm to feed the poor, rather than on computers for the poor? Do you have the real solution that people should be working towards instead of this?

    There is no shortage of food on Earth. Most starvation is accompanied by war -- famine alone seldom causes starvation. Malnutrition is widespread, but is not due to a lack of food in a larger sense -- it is due to social upheavals in rural areas, social injustice, global food markets, etc., etc., etc.

    If the food that exists was given to everyone fairly, then people wouldn't be starving anywhere. This computer is as much a step towards that (far off) goal as anything else. Free communication and justice go hand in hand, and this computer is a step towards that communication.

  • It seems silly to throw away perfectly-good P133 boxes, but you certainly can't sell them or give them away anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

    Lots of people in the Western Hemisphere are perfectly happy to take these computers. A P133, when loaded with Windows 95, Netscape 4.0, Juno/NetZero/whatever, and StarOffice 5 runs very nicely. My old high school gets these from the government, fixes them up, equips them with $20 modems, and gives them to students who don't have and can't afford computers. We actually used to run this same software image on 486's and the performance was acceptable. If you have P133s (or P-anythings, for that matter!) that you can't seem to get rid of, talk to schools in low-income areas near you. Just don't try to unload crap on these people. Nothing makes us more angry than when somebody donates us a Pentium with no CPU & RAM or a Mac with the ROM simm removed (the ROM simm is specific to one model of Mac and pretty useless apart from the computer, and the Mac is inoperable without the ROM SIMM.)

    And if you have 486's or something that you can't get rid of locally, there are ways to donate them to Third World nations. We've sent Macintosh IIci's to Africa through a friend of a teacher, and donated 486s to the Seventh-Day Adventists. Look around.

    Remember: A 486 is still infinitely faster than no computer at all.

  • What can you do with a computer in the Third World?

    Use text-to-speech to teach people how to read.

    Store reference texts in a very dense manner -- most medical reference books will fit in less than 4 megs on RAM on PalmPilots.

    E-mail to nearby villages for trade.

    Web-based markets for farming goods.

    Web-based road and travel conditions.

    E-mail announcements of mobile health-care services coming to nearby regions.

    Tolerance of poor phone lines -- make the computer retry every one hour until download succeeds.

    I think the fact that it runs off on standard batteries is very powerful. The TRS-80 Model 100 did this, which proved very useful when traveling to regions without reliable power grids. The TRS-80 also had solar-panel power sources available for it... It would be nice if that worked here.
  • ... and maybe this is why nobody's worried about competition from the Russian software industry...
    "Beware by whom you are called sane."
  • What most people here seem to be missing is that India has one of the largest middle class populations in the world. Here what needs to be understood clearly is that the definition "middle class" varies significantly between nations: an average "middle class" person in India earns roughly around Rs.4500/month (US$ 100/month). This is enough to maintain a decent standard of living in India but it is still very low when it comes to purchasing equipment such as computers. For these people, a computer which costs as little as the simputer is a God send.
  • Of course we all know that, but one must remember that marketers and computer illiterati have a memory span of approximately 12 months.

    It's a bit like when the newbie walks into a lab full of Sparcs and asks whether they're Macs or PCs...

  • You know, there was a special FAQ-entry for people like you:

    Q: Can I create a Beowulf cluster using many Simputers?

    A: You must be a /.er; in which you know the answer!
  • You make excellent points. However look at it this way. What if this device helps in actually putting food in the stomachs of us Indians ?
    We need to get out of the mindsets of computers being expensive. These cheap gadgets might just bring about changes in ways we haven't even dreamed about. You need to seed projects to find out if they will flourish. This computing device is not there to play Quake but to use to mine information. Information that might make a difference such as protection against common pests that destroy crops or extended weather forecasts. Information we take for granted is very hard to find in remote and economically poor areas.
    And as far as specific things in your message go, for example, The Government of India gives free lunch to all children who attend free public school in the poor areas. The sad part is that people are so poor more children are sent to work in farms and shops than to school.
  • by Doodhwala (13342) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @12:14PM (#250385) Homepage
    This one took the cake


    10.Can I create a Beowulf cluster using many Simputers?
    You must be a /.er; in which you know the answer!
  • You don't seem to get it. Small closed computers like this one aren't very much to produce at all, especially if you're ordering them inquantities of hundreds of thousands. PCs have low margins because of all the components on separate PCBs. If everything fits onto a single PCB and you put as many logic units onto the same die as you can fit, you've got a really inexpensive system to build. Radio electronics are inexpensive as well which means setting up a radio packet network in rural areas isn't really THAT difficult. A bunch of ham operators could build a nice little network pretty efficiently.
  • So..when exactly did India become the world's poorest and most unfortunate company? According to the world bank they are the number 4 economy in the world in terms of GDP. So anyways. Why the Simputer? Why not pass out Gameboy Advance to the rural peoples of India? Most of the stuff you can do with these things could be done with one, to boot you've got a colour screen and the ability to play a bajillion Gameboy games. The good part is it only costs half as much and uses cheap alkaline batteries rather than NiMh ones. Rugedize the body on them a little bit and you'd be good to go. The Simputer is an awesome waste of money for everyone involved, the consumers are going to find too few uses for their 3 months worth of wages and the licensed manufacturers aren't going to move units in volume to make these things worth while to make.
  • <em>It's not a PC, but rather a microcomputer...</em>

    Oh, so it's like an Apple II? Commodore 64? Cool!
  • If this helps India get the needed computing done without needing lots of foreign exchange, then I might have a big effect on feeding the people. If this lets school children be taught professions that will pay them a living wage, then it might have a big effect on feeding the people.

    You are right. Someone who is personally starving is not personally going to benefit immediately. But if the economy of the country doesn't have to be twisted to pay money into the coffers of MS, then there has been a gain. That money is then available for other purposes, like agricultural development.


    Caution: Now approaching the (technological) singularity.
  • When more than half the people in the world have never even used a freaking telephone, we're going to start giving out cheap computers?

    Sheesh.

    As Bill Gates pointed out, the majority of the people in the world don't need techno gadgets. They need health care and education. I'd add democratic governments and a reasonable ability for people to start their own businesses and profit from their own work.

    Before the flamers start, I'm not a big-L Libertarian who thinks everything should be privatized and there shouldn't be a social safety net. I just believe in free markets being the solution to many (not all) problems.

    Once these basic needs are met, we can start working on computers.

    -jon

  • This has got to be a troll, but it's such a stupid one...

    You would quote Gates on this, wouldn't you?

    Why not? He's right. Deal with it.

    Why are you using a computer at all?

    Because I live in a first-world nation where my basic needs are met. This isn't gloating or boasting, it's a fact. Deal with it.

    What are you doing to meet those "basic needs you are spouting about?

    None of your damn business.

    How about realizing that India is not a uniform, homogenous country?

    Where did I write the word "India" in my post? I'm going to guess you're Indian.

    Are starvation deaths and natural disasters the only things you first worlders deign to notice?

    No, we also notice deaths by militias and man-made disasters, like Communism.

    Simputers, satellite launch vehicles, satellites etc are as important to us as any other type of research.

    You could research genetically modified grains that would be more nutritious. You could research improved birth control methods. Or you could research a $1.50 computer. Take your pick.

    We need to leapfrog over some things to allow us to improve our conditions.

    Yes, and when your country's legislature spends a few months debating whether or not Coca-Cola should be sold within its borders, I'd say you need to do lots of condition improving. I'd start with the government. You'd start with a cheap microprocessor. Priorities, I guess.

    You may talk of being nerds, but most of you can't think beyond cliches.

    Isn't "think beyond cliches" a cliche?

    -jon

  • I just hope they make them cheap enough that you can attach them to a stick and use them as a hoe. 'Cause I'm thinking that's what the rural poor could probably use more than a shirt pocket machine that will run Mathmatica...

    --
    Poliglut [poliglut.com]


  • @maddison[113]% man 1 fortune

    FORTUNE(1) User Commands FORTUNE(1)

    NAME
    fortune - print a random, hopefully interesting, adage

    [etc]

    @maddison[114]% man 6 fortune
    No entry for fortune in section(s) 6 of the manual.

  • People who ask questions like "What a poor illiterate farmer is going to do with it?" just don't get it. Unbalanced growth has costed india a lot already. India is the largest producer of food grain and milk in the world now. But because of poor infrastructure they can not be transported to all parts of the country in fast and cheap way. The roads in India are horrible. If India had in improving infrastructure too, then all the money and effort spent in increasing food-grain and milk production through the 'Green Revolution' project would have been more useful. India is trying to achieve 100% literacy rate by end of this decade. If cheap and easy access to information which Simputer would provide is not available by then then the literacy campaign too would be less effective. When you have 10 problems to sove with varying degree of importance and urgency, you don't make policy to solve the most urgent problem first, then next urgent etc. Ofcourse one should put more effort in solving the most urgent problem.
  • You may have to settle for seeing the full stomachs second. People with money don't starve. People who know IT are more likely to have money.
  • Uh, a PC is a microcomputer.

  • by scotpurl (28825) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @01:28PM (#250398)
    I mean, the thing is estimated to sell for 9000Rs, which is about $200 U.S. Considering the "minimum" wage in India is supposed to be around 2000Rs per month, and the actual wage people are paid is down around 1000Rs per month, then how the hell are they supposed to afford this?
  • Look at how poor people use other technological artifacts, and then your assumptions about what a computer is good for, and you'll get the answer.

    Let's look at two examples: Televisions are not uncommon in the third world, although they are typically shared by several families. It's a link to the wider culture and sporting events.

    Cell phones: A community may not have the economic clout to be wired for land lines. Cell phones are very successful and practical ways of linking poor communities to family members who have migrated overseas.

    So, a poor farmer doesn't need to calculate ballistic trajectories, or process payroll, but they do need to communicate with family members, benefit from agricultural bulletins or public health education. And that's where most of the growth in computers has been in the first world over the last decade: the computer as a communication medium.

    Also, consider the following example. In 1887, a boy was born to poor parents in Erode India. By a stroke of luck he had access to an elementary mathematics textbook out of which Srinivasa Ramanujan taught himself to be one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century, the first Indian fellow of the Royal Society.

    The potential for something like that is what makes the project exciting. Something as simple as cast off textbook made a huge difference in one person's life. There is a vast reservoir of minds out there in third world backwaters, and no doubt a few potentially brilliant ones that simply want connection to the wider world of ideas.

  • Marc Stiegler's fine book, Earthweb [skyhunter.com], but unless the users can understand written English (or I'm missing something, which is quite possible) I'm not sure how much it will do "for the billions of people who have yet to set foot in the wired wards of the Global Village."

    OTOH, like it or not, English literacy seems to be growing rapidly, and perhaps that fact -- combined with services like Babelfish (if there's a Babelfish lite?) -- means my skepticism is not justified. I hope so.
    JMR

  • by dolanh (64212) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @12:25PM (#250401) Homepage Journal
    ...but the poor, illiterate farmer's son or daughter might want one, and potentially benefit from one. I'm very glad my mom had the foresight to buy me a computer in 1984; for me it helped lead me towards a well paid high tech career.. How about you?
  • One simputer could easily be afforded by an entire village...

    In India, some 68,000 village women have become mobile phone operators serving the entire village. It is not unreasonable to think that something similar would happen with this device.
  • by timholman (71886) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @01:13PM (#250403)
    This is a great idea! I would love to see a computing device in the hands of every person on the planet. But first I would like to see full stomaches on all of them. How are they going to market these to people who can't afford to feed their children? [Free bag of rice with every purchase.] I am not saying these are a bad idea. Or that they cannot work. Hell, I would love to see them all over in countries that could afford them. But I believe that we should at least try and be socially conscience of the thousands of people who not only have never heard of a computer -- they are dying because of starvation.

    Okay, I realize that I am endangering my karma here. I am taking a stance that may be seen as flamebait. But I really believe that this should be said by someone. But anyway, what are our plans to bring food to people who need it? Those should be more important than computers.


    This is a specious argument. Everyone on Slashdot could sell their computers right now and send the money to feed the starving children. Guess what? Six months from now they'll -still- be starving.

    If civilization waited until everyone was fed and happy before investing resources in new ideas, we'd still be squatting in caves. It's the investment in those ideas that makes real advancements in the quality of life possible.

    Unfortunately, world hunger is a much harder problem to solve than building a Simputer. Making a Simputer is just a matter of engineering - solving world hunger is more an economic, cultural, and political problem than a matter of growing more food. However, building a Simputer might help some of the best and brightest in Third World countries help themselves, and in the long run that will be the only viable solution to mass starvation.

    A final point for everyone to consider - are the creators of the Simputer overestimating the market for these machines? Remember the guy who created the hand cranked radio a few years ago? He designed it to bring modern communications to remote Third World villages. The problem was that no one in the Third World wanted to buy them (or could afford to do so)! Nowadays they sell them as camping gear in the U.S.A. Somehow I think the Simputer may have a bigger market in the First World rather than the Third World.
  • by flatrock (79357) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @12:24PM (#250404)
    There's a lot of countries where that poor farmer is far from illeterate. Vietnam comes to mind as an example. They have a very high literacy rate. Of course $200 is still to high of a price for most of their population, but it's getting closer. Of course the fact that the OS is Linux doesn't matter much for them since they don't have any copyright laws there anyway.
  • "It's not a PC, but rather a microcomputer"

    Silly me, I always thought the PC was a microcomputer [techtarget.com].
    --

  • Whoa a Linux enthusiast who has heard about Slashdot... WHAT A SURPRISE!!!
  • Forgive me if I'm very wrong (I dont have a GUI so I can only go by the descriptions in the FAQ) but this sounds to me a whole lot like a Newton 2100 ripoff without the nifty handwriting recognition or the ability to play Quake.
  • They can call that little thing whatever they want but its still a PDA, which most people do not have. As of right now most people who want computers and can afford them already have one. If this device is intended for people who are currently unsure about buying a computer, the marketers are not very intelligent. People who are wary about technology are not going to be any more inclined to buy this than they are to buy an imac.
  • ...it's interesting and all, yay for small and cheap computing devices, but I really don't see it doing much good. They're trying to market these to a specific group of people, a sizeable percentage of whom don't have electricity or running water. I'd think their efforts (and that of similar aid-type groups) would better be spent towards something that can make their life easier in the immediate future. Plumbing, maybe.

  • 1) Poor people need food and shelter, not computers.

    2) Phone service is expensive in India. The set of people who have reliable home phone service, but can't afford $500 for a desktop PC is relatively small.

    3) Nobody with any sense will invest in this. Why not? At a $200 price point, margins are razor thin. The target market is people that not only can't afford a computer, but don't know how to use one. Now think, how easy is it to eat up that $5 in profit on customer support. We have the same problem with low-end computers in the US. Fact is, every system builder is targeting people that already own computers, while no one is target the low end, first-time computer buyer, for the simple and obvious reason that the cost of supporting the first-time buyer far exceeds the profit margin for a low end PC...

  • by tedtimmons (97599) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @12:32PM (#250411) Homepage
    Apparently they are trying to run the website off of the 200mhz processor that is going in these things. I'm slowly building a mirror up; it's taking 30+ seconds per http request with wget, so as I'm writing this only the front page and logo are there. But I'm trying to mirror the whole shebang.

    http://www.perljam.net/misc/simputer/www.simputer. org/ [perljam.net]

    -ted

  • The palm pilot was succesful because it was designed with the customer in mind. They put in exactly the applications that business-types needed to use (scheduler,etc.) and made everything simple. This made the palm very successful.

    Simputer should follow palm's approach and build a "farmer's pda" - a pda designed from the ground up with the farmer in mind. For example, main menu links to information on the weather, agriculture, prices of crops. Applications to help farmers make better growing decisions. etc.

    Unfortunately, from the screenshots, it looks like what they've done is slap generic linux (complete with X, command shell,etc.) onto a pda.
  • When I see that word, all I can think of are the Simps in Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama.

    But that's probably just me.



    -J
  • They will now be sued by Maxis.
    =\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\ =\=\=\=\
  • The first thing that hit me was somethign like Sim city, except with computer chips :)
    =\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\=\ =\=\
  • The problems with donating old computers are:



    1) It costs a lot to ship them there. Probably more than they are worth



    2) The older they are, the more power they consume per processing unit. The StrongARM processor was designed to consume very little energy. And electricity is more expensive in India than it is in the US (though possibly around the same price as it is in Europe). India has some oil, but has to import ~ 80% of it from foreign countries, mainly in the Middle East.



  • by aat (106366) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @08:42PM (#250417) Homepage Journal
    According to preliminary Indian Census [censusindia.net] 2001 results, India's literacy rate is 65%, ranging from 45% to > 90% , with literacy rates amongst the under 24 population significantly higher than amongst the older generation (up to 20% higher in the least literate states). In about 10 years, India's literacy rate will nearly be 80% with literacy rates above 90% in several states.



    The number of illiterates in India has declined in absolute terms in the past decade, and thanks to both declining birth rates and increasing literacy rates, this will continue.



    But what will the _literate_ farmers do with internet abled computers?



    Check the prices of crops, and increase their income by avoiding the middleman.



    Get weather forecasts, thanks to the Indian government's investment in satellite, imaging, and remote sensing technology.



    Buy supplies online from companies at a cheaper rate than traditional middlemen.



    Communicate with relatives in other states, and other countries more quickly, cheaply, and reliably than via "snail mail". Internet cafe's have started springing up in smaller towns and the Indian government is building a fiber backbone along the Indian Railway's right of way, which will make it easy for > 90% of Indians to get net access.



    Communicate with Indian bureaucracy with much less pain.



  • You can give them away. I'll take them.
  • Exactly. The problem here is that they don't explain why all these people without computers would want to buy one (even if it is cheap).

    The web surfing and email ability is mentioned, provided you have access to a phone line (and, presumably, some sort of ISP). How many of these people have telephones? Can they afford ISP service? There's more to getting "online" than simply having the hardware.

    If they're not online, what are they going to do with these things? A better solution may be to load them up with e-text (core government documents, classic books, etc) and using them as a method of providing knowledge to the masses.

  • Of course the fact that the OS is Linux doesn't matter much for them since they don't have any copyright laws there anyway.

    It's interesting, because I've just recently found out that in Russia, too, it is illegal to do the whole "licensing" thing. By Russian laws, when you buy a piece of software, you can do whatever you wish with it, as long as you're not making profit. I could buy a copy of W2k and burn it for all my friends and that would be perfectly legal as long as I don't charge them.

    In fact, the whole MS EULA is illegal, since it prohibits me to do what I am entitled to by Russian consumer laws. It's pretty interesting and I personally find it funny, that the actions of Microsoft (or in fact any license-enforcing company including the likes of RIAA, MPAA, etc) violate the laws of the country... :)

  • There seems to be an assumption here that India is just a mass of starving people like a LiveAid video from the Ethiopian famine. This is a country which produces more movies than hollywood, is taking high tech work from US and European companies, has a big enough market and enough self identity to force MTV to change their output etc.

    This isn't an aid project, it's a commercial product. If they sell these things then there is clearly a use for them. If there is no use they won't sell any. It's certainly a better idea than most of the .com companies which have been blowing up all over the `developed' world.

    having said which think it's far too expensive to do what they seem to want. What we (worldwide) do need is a realy cheap really ubiquitous computing device. Something on the order of a gameboy, those things must cost next to nothing to manufacture by now. Get it down to $20, Make the human interface easy and the programmer interface public. _Then_ we'll have for computing what we already have for music. Imagine wanderring into your local shop and picking through a rack of what guys in villages in mali have been hacking up.

  • why does the "poor illiterate farmer" out in the fields need a computer?

    Well, there are a lot of those poor farmers who aren't illiterate. According to the CIA world factbook, India has a 52% literacy rate and 67% of the labor force is involved in agriculture. That means that even if every non-agricultural worker is literate then about 1/4 of the agricultural workers are literate. That's a pretty big market when you consider the size of India's population- just over 1 billion.

    And, of course, a lot of those farmers may not want to stay as farmers forever. Remember that India is currently viewed as being a potentially big player in the computer industry in the future, so some of those farmers may want to learn about computers or have their children learn about computers to get in on the anticipated boom. Just because they're poor farmers doesn't mean that they're stupid, ignorant, or happy about being poor farmers.

  • Very good point. OK folks, everybody on slashdot please sell their computers today and contribute the money to UNICEF.
  • Many people feel that "ubiquitous computing" is the future. Well, this is another form of ubiquitous computing.
    In today's world, information is power (and wealth). Devices like these will let the information flow into each and every nook and cranny of this world.
    An anecdote is in order. It used to be that farmers from far-flung villages would sell their produce to some middleman at a price influenced by that middleman. But this is changing. Today in some areas farmers are able to search the internet for the latest commodity prices, and can get a better estimate of what their produce is worth. Thus, access to this information has taken out most of the wiggle room that the middlemen had.
  • I'm pretty sure I know the answer... does it somehow involve goatsecx?
  • by fjordboy (169716) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @12:10PM (#250426) Homepage
    This reminds me of a dilbert cartoon when a vendor was trying to sell the most userfriendly computer in existance.

    Vendor: And it only has one button, and we press it before it leaves the factory
    Dilbert: What does that button do?
    Vendor: Whoa! I'm in way over my head! Let me give you our tech support number.

    This article just sort of reminded me of that. :)

  • $10 million plus as a first step to reinvent the wheel. What are the problems that simputer solves that a old palm can't? $200 isn't even cheap compared to existing alternatives, esp. those available by the time this thing ships, if it ever does.

    Why not start by setting up a PO Box in india where I can ship the seven perfectly usable PCs and Macs I have lying around not in use. and give these to a village as a central resource. One kid in each village would probably become a wizard and help the whole community. Everyone i know (exaggeration) is throwing out old PCs, these things become out of style but not functionally obsolete.

    Why try to create some new OS standards when they will never be able to catch up to the development that goes into *nix, Windows, or Mac or even palmOS.

    Even a proprietary OS company would be smart to say "hey India, use my OS for Free for five years" Add an extra one billion users to their user base to hit up for system upgrades in a few years. It's not like they are going to be able to track down that "pirate" farmer in Northern India and extract $100,000 for each infraction that i keep hearing about from that Software Protection Agency (whatever they are called..)

    And why is there some implication that villagers that are illiterate, so somehow that makes them dumb? How insulting. Farming takes brains, shrewdness, planning and survival skills. Most of the posters on Slashdot are illiterate (just look at the mispellings and grammur ;) ) and there are programming geniuses amongst us. (I'm NOT including myself in that, foks)

    I am not trying to be dissmissive or discouraging, but I really don't get it. If anyone can give me more info or explain what I am missing, I am all ears. I really don't get this. They are staking out territory in between a PC and a PDA and in six months will get squeezed out on features on either side....

  • any style "simputer" developed today should have a variety of simple interfaces such as the PDA touch-pad, close-proximity wireless devices (like one-hand pocket keyboards), visors/eye pieces, voice, etc. and should be fashionably wearable [muzi.net]. Only with of course being 24/7 wireless and having week-long battery lives will the "general world-wide public" be interested.
  • I know for a fact that the Vietnam government just hired 4 people to enter the country to teach BASIC farming techniques, BASIC health-care and community planning. Things that they see as desperate needs in that country for the "average" "citizen" in Vietnam.

    Okay, it's not pretty, but is BASIC really that bad? Are Americans that much better off just because of Java-based farming techniques and health care?

  • by Junior J. Junior III (192702) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @12:26PM (#250430) Homepage

    Maybe it'd be better to "seed" the Third World with inexpensive, minimalistic computers with the approximate capabilities of, say, an 8086 PC, or an Apple II, or a Commodore 64, but an architecture which is intuitively easy to program for. Price it at, say, $1.50 USD or so.

    Let the people teach themselves to use these computers; they'll be forced to teach themselves how to program in order to do anything useful with the machines, (and it's a lot easier to learn to program on a computer that only has around 64k of RAM and, say, 512kb of storage space.) In about 20 years or so, the Third World will be a nation of budding hackers, cleverly designing their own IT infrastructure.

    My sig is quite appropos to this situation.

    ----

  • the fortune(1) database

    That should've been fortune(6), of course...

  • THE LESSER-KNOWN PROGRAMMING LANGUAGES #10: SIMPLE

    SIMPLE is an acronym for Sheer Idiot's Monopurpose Programming Language Environment. This language, developed at the Hanover College for Technological Misfits, was designed to make it impossible to write code with errors in it. The statements are, therefore, confined to BEGIN, END and STOP. No matter how you arrange the statements, you can't make a syntax error. Programs written in SIMPLE do nothing useful. Thus they achieve the results of programs written in other languages without the tedious, frustrating process of testing and debugging.

    Obtained from the fortune(1) database.

  • by MacGabhain (198888) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @01:02PM (#250433)

    While I like the concept, this can really be nothing more than a step in the right direction, not a destination (even an intermediate one). In the areas they seem to be looking, $200 is enough to buy food for half a year, if not more. The phrase "Hierarchy of Needs" springs to mind.

    Children who are hungry don't learn, so in an increasing number of school districts in the US, breakfast is being served. Likewise, maybe an illiterate farmer or merchant would love to have one of these, once you've figured out a way for him to stop worrying about feeding his family this week (or this evening). Considering the progress we've made on THAT question over the last half a century, I'd guess that computers such as this, while a lovely idea, are at least 20 years ahead of being useful.

    Of course, speaking of what $200 will buy, other than a useless piece of mixed circuitry, anyone care to speculate on what the $10M these guys raised and spent developing the things could have done for a typical Indian village?

  • You would quote Gates on this, wouldn't you? Why are you using a computer at all? What are you doing to meet those "basic needs you are spouting about? How about realizing that India is not a uniform, homogenous country? Are starvation deaths and natural disasters the only things you first worlders deign to notice? Simputers, satellite launch vehicles, satellites etc are as important to us as any other type of research. We need to leapfrog over some things to allow us to improve our conditions. I have seen this repeatedly on /. whenever an article talks of any third world coutry.You may talk of being nerds, but most of you can't think beyond cliches. halothane
  • A computer, say its creators, for the masses

    Commodore Computers (RIP) had dubbed the VIC-20 as the computer for the masses back in 1981

  • by mblase (200735) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @01:26PM (#250436)
    what are our plans to bring food to people who need it? Those should be more important than computers.

    First, the company making the computers is Indian itself. This is not a case of Western capitalist imperialism at work.

    Second, the company isn't trying to hand out computers instead of food; it's trying to sell computers cheaply enough that they don't have to choose between it and food.

    Third, the entire Indian subcontinent is not in the grip of starvation. There's a lot of perfectly well-off people there, and some of them are even technologically literate.

    And fourth, you may as well have asked the same question about Microsoft, Apple, Sun, Amoco, Sears, Wal-Mart, the Pentagon, etc. They are all businesses, not charity, and their mission is to sell desirable products, not give away every cent they have.

  • As far as the "endangering your karma" bit is concerned, well, there definitely are things that need to be said, even though people don't like them.

    Your point is completely right. In a world where something like half of the world's population can't read or write and where millions of people each year die either of starvation or in wars, a portable cheap computer is definitely not the thing to solve these people's trouble. I talked to a friend from Sudan about this and he laughed at me in the face outright. This is not helpful. A lot of money is going to be wasted.

  • You touched on the main weakness of this thing - it has a slow network connection. The 3rd world will not embrace computing until they can do something useful with it, and the most useful thing is to get information from hundreds or thousands of miles away. It will be problematic downloading data over dodgy phone lines or slow wireless connections.

    Simputer will be a good idea when you can embed a 3G wireless phone in the thing and use that as your net connection. Everyone would want one of those.

  • Vietnam? I know for a fact that the Vietnam government just hired 4 people to enter the country to teach BASIC farming techniques, BASIC health-care and community planning. Things that they see as desperate needs in that country for the "average" "citizen" in Vietnam. Literacy aside, those people need help in ways that are hard for us (Americans) to imagine.
    Leave computers aside and teach them how to take care of that farm that is their only source of food first.
  • I dunno, what comes to mind for me is the Simpsons... Especially since Homer started a dotcom and was bought out by Bill Gates... D'oh!

  • The web surfing and email ability is mentioned, provided you have access to a phone line (and, presumably, some sort of ISP). How many of these people have telephones? Can they afford ISP service? There's more to getting "online" than simply having the hardware.

    My 2:

    Assume a primarily agricultural nation. How would its citizens get voice/data access?
    1. Nationalized telecom industry; it's the only entity that can afford it, or...
    2. A multi-billionaire fits the cost. Riiiight.

    Now, what would be cheaper...
    • Running copper/fibre/strings with tin cans throughout your nation, or...
    • Set up radio/cellular/satellite towers in several places?

    Now that wireless has come of age (pretty much), towers would seem cheaper than running cable. The problem would be running power to the towers.

    Thus sprach DrQu+xum.
  • D00d, on behalf of the Intelligencia, I hereby declare that we don't *want* the f*%king masses to have computers.Because when they do get them, all they'll do is start posting crap to /. and fc.com and the next thing you know no one will want to read through all the trash to pick up the few scraps of wisdom.

    Oh wait

  • I think slashdoters are quick to make comment and sometimes to quick

    From what I read about the Simputer project it adresses (or aims to adress) a lot of the problems that people here are talking about:

    It doesn't intend to sell simputer to individuals but to collectivities (villages...)

    It will provide a simple graphical interface with text to speech in English and various Indian languages

    The goal of the interface is to be usable by people who can't read or write (I'm not sure anyone has tried this before)

    I consider a comment such as "they should feed their people first" to be more a spontaneous reaction than an insightful comment (not that spontaneous reaction is always bad). They consider that IT is important and that their people shouldn't be left behind, at least they're trying, give them credit for that!

    A lot of people would be surprised of the extent to which IT is in use in so-called Thrid World countries, this is an interesting phenomenon and will surely lead to interesting results

  • If something like this took off in lesser areas of the world, they would probably be an instant hit here.

    It kinda reminds me of the old, ruggedized GRiDpad mixed with the old "tan and monochrome" Macintosh computers.

    I've always wondered why monochrome couldn't be used just to cut the prices of things. Most of us don't really need the color, but it would be nice to have a cheap, hackable, portable e-book/tablet/linux device. Apps would probably take off with an open architecture and no licensing.

    I think the Palm is great, but having some sort of half-desktop/half-PDA device that would allow more flexibility would be really cool.

  • It should have a GPS built into it. Then ya can use it, and this use alone will sell billions of 'em, to find buses, trains, and &tcs when you're in a strange city.

  • Not all that long ago, India and China had some of the most efficient agriculture in the world and now look at their population density. Note that humans like all animals generally push the population limits. The third world in general is showing continuing population growth that we cannot ignore, and I am afraid simply feeding people will not solve this problem.

    Now, structured education of nearly any kind has been shown to allow people to take control of their reproduction, and the critical length seems to be roughly three years. It does not seem to matter in this regard whether it is the US school system or the Lybian school system-- the same results are seen.

    Also many starving countries have infrastructures which are heared at export only because they were originally designed by colonial powers or by governments bought out by international export-oriented corporations.

    These countries do not need food. Food which comes into the country reinforced the second major problem (export-oriented infrastructure). They need a functional network of roads and a locally controlled educational system, and it agrivates the first. Rather we should be mindful of helping these countries with educational needs (literacy) and infrastructure needs (roads, telephones, etc.).

    I think that computers can provide such incentive by emphasizing literacy and telecomunications infrastructure. Then food can be useful.

  • Just wanted to get the links in better.
    Digital Empowerment: Seeds Of E-Volution [outlookindia.com]
    Wired to the Future [india-today.com]
  • India is now ranked 4th largest economy in terms of GDP PPP. This changed a few weeks ago according to new figures by World bank. It's behind only US, Japan and China.
    Just wanted to buut in and put the facts right.
  • by MaximusTheGreat (248770) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @04:44PM (#250449) Homepage
    I just want to make a few points here --
    1) It's not a Palm, it's a full fledged Linux computer
    2) They have applications with localisation in languages no standard OS supports.
    3) Do u know how much it would cost to ship ur computers? And who would maintain all these different architectures/configurations etc.? Isn't that the same problem that schools in US have with donated computers?
    4) Computers are given to villagers under govt. programs. So, not paying for the software is out of question. Individuals can and do pirate out there, but govt. cannot. There are copyright laws, it's just hard to enforce them.
    5) Standardising the architecture and getting it out under GPL is a great idea to proliferate these things and reduce cost.
    6) As, for using propritery OS, I thing being a /.er you do know the advantages of using a GPL OS like linux. So, I won't reiterate that.
    P.S. Did you even read their FAQ?
  • by MaximusTheGreat (248770) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @02:50PM (#250450) Homepage
    There have been lot of questions by a lot of posters as to what would poor rural India do with this computer. So, I will try to explain here what's already being done and how this new simputer can help.
    Let's get some facts straight here. In India the development is very uneven. So, there are a few states which are very poor and most which are ok and some really well off.
    What's happening out there currently is that the ok and the well off states actually have started giving computer access to people in villages. As to what they use it for --- An example from actual usage -- A soyabean farmer finds out price of soyabean in chicago, because the price in chicago effects the price in India in a few months, so , he can decide how much to sow. Also, when he is ready to sell his soyabean, he finds out which market gives him the best price and rentsa atruck to sell there. A widow is not getting pension for her husband because of beauracracy, she goes to the village computer and pays 5/- (about 10 cents) to send an e-mail to an high up official. He responds and she starts getting the money. Both of these examples are real life and actually happened.
    So, what this computer will do is that it will make usage of computers in regional language easy and will give them a cheaper linus computer rather then the Windows one that is more common out there.
    See these links to find out more about how computers are changing rural India.
    http://www.outlookindia.com/full.asp?fodname=20010 409&fname=Cover+Story+%28F%29&sid=1
    http://www.india-today.com/itoday/20001211/offtrac k.shtml
  • The real reason, the simputer has been created is, the existing content on the web is not useful for an illiterate person. By producing low cost computers in local language,(in 2 languages at present) it gives an opportunity for content providers to target these groups with specialised content.
    More links - Cnet article [cnet.com]
    Pc World article [pcworld.com]

    BTW, the simputer comes with it's own license called the Simputer Public License [simputer.org]. The Indian Institute of Science (IISC) [ernet.in] and Encore [ncoretech.com], organisations behind the Simputer are not selling it & the news, is Manufacturers from other developing countries like venezuela, brazil, et al are keen on producing this Simputer.
  • Very true. For example, down in south India, states like Kerala have almost 100% literacy, and the state of Tamil Nadu produces more than 30,000 engineers yearly, and most of these ppl are from rural background.

    The engineer son learns, goes back to his rural place, and helps out his Dad. Agreed, it doesn't always happen, but when it does happen, something like this definitely helps!

    "...Fear the people who fear your computer"
  • This differs from a HandSpring Visor how?

    Oh yeah, we can actually see the architecture of one of those. If this is actually for real, why is it that there's so little hard data being provided, despite the inevitable simplicity of the device? Something here smells very funny...
  • And this is innovative? Frankly, I don't see the point.

    In my mind, this is nothing more than a budget Pocket PC. And at $200, this is almost the price of some of the lower budget Pocket PCs, which have 200 MHz processors, 64 MB memory and a true color screen.

    This really does take the cake for being the most non-original 'innovation' ever. Do they think by calling it a 'Simputer', charging $200 for a greyscale device and marketing to the poor they're going to do something unique?

    And then there's Linux. Why the hell does Linux need to go onto a device which is marketed to underprivilaged, poor folk who are more concerned with bags of grain than developing an IT industry? I'm sure they're going to have lots of time to study cryptic shell functions as soon as they survive the drought. Umm, I forgot: they can't read, write, and they use their toes for counting. People who can't read and are under-educated aren't going to understand Linux, let alone even the interaction between computer and person. Most probably have never used a computer and don't have much of a clue what they're for. I'm sure most aren't interested, and, because of lack of education, are not going to be because they won't be able to see the benefits.

    Let's face it: developing countries means developing. They're not ready to start making their lives better or easier when they can't even survive or maintain stability as it is. There needs to be certain foundations in order for things like an information industry to develop. You can't expect to sell Simputers to starving African children or a war torn country. Hey, your home was taken out by the latest raid, but you can have a Simputer for only $200! I'm sure $200 in those countries could *buy* a new house.

    This is very unfortunate, but still goes along the lines of the solution to such problems as world hunger. How can we get the entire world using technology? You'll remeber technology is the application of science toward a problem in society, so if there is no application, there is no technology. Who would want this thing??? Tell me one situation where a citizen in a devloping country (probably poor, uneducated) would have just cause for needing a Simputer. It's true there are some countries which do have resonable literacy rates and are still developing in a sense, but even these are very unstable and there would be very little use for a device like this.

  • All the talk about technology reaching out to the truly poor is completely ludicrous. According to the FAQ this thing is gonna cost about 9000 rupees which is about $200 (USD). Of course this may seem pretty cheap to the average /.er but it is clearly FAR out of the grasp of the poorest people of the world, most of whom don't come close to earning that in a YEAR. If anything this is a computer for the "Third World" equivalent of the middle class.
  • by J3zmund (301962)
    Makes me long for the days when my Newton was the coolest way to take notes in class...
  • This sure sounds alot like an iPaq with a few added features, like USB and such. If they can make it and sell it for sub $200 and have PCMCIA support to add on a IEEE 802.11b PC card, I'll be one of the first ones to buy one. I am looking at an iPaq now to be my remote control for my home automation system, but if I can get something cheaper, then maybe it will be worth while to wait.
  • I thought PC's used to be considered a 'microcomputer' back in the early days when most business computers took up entire rooms and held 32K RAM. So wouldn't you consider these new 'microcomputers' just a new All-In-1 device?
  • You know, there was a special FAQ-entry for people like you:
    Q: Can I create a Beowulf cluster using many Simputers?

    A: You must be a /.er; in which you know the answer!

    LOL! Yeah, I saw that after I posted. The answer, of course, is yes, you can create a Beowulf cluster of them. But I asked if you could imagine one, which frankly I can't. Because, as others have pointed out, I can't imagine why everyone on the planet would want -- let alone need -- one of these. Still, if this truely is a computer for the masses, then isn't the next logical step to interconnect all these masses? And if they're interconnected, why not utilize all this power that will undoubtedly go idle for at least 8 hours a day?

    If you think my proposal was silly, then you now know my opinon of their proposal.

  • "14.What about Javascript?"
    . "Doh! What about it?"

    Gotta love question 10, too :-)

  • Why should we bother feeding the poor when people are dying of AIDS? Why should be bother curing AIDS when people are dying of cancer?

    You equate these problems to not having a computer? Man, you need to get your priorities straight. I used food as an example; I believe that there are more important problems to be solved than getting a computer in everybodies' hands. I know that a bunch of people can work on a bunch of problems at once, but just how worthwhile would cable TV be if people try to get it out before their target buyers have electricity?

    Seriously, I don't know what you are thinking.

    ---
    "Do not meddle in the affairs of sysadmins,

  • by frob2600 (309047) on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @12:15PM (#250462)
    This is a great idea! I would love to see a computing device in the hands of every person on the planet. But first I would like to see full stomaches on all of them. How are they going to market these to people who can't afford to feed their children? [Free bag of rice with every purchase.] I am not saying these are a bad idea. Or that they cannot work. Hell, I would love to see them all over in countries that could afford them. But I believe that we should at least try and be socially conscience of the thousands of people who not only have never heard of a computer -- they are dying because of starvation.

    Okay, I realize that I am endangering my karma here. I am taking a stance that may be seen as flamebait. But I really believe that this should be said by someone. But anyway, what are our plans to bring food to people who need it? Those should be more important than computers.

    No I am not perfect in this area. I give a little to help a person but not much. I am not encouraging you to go out and start throwing money at these people. But it would be great if we could find a way to have these computers help solve some of their larger problems.

    ---
    "Do not meddle in the affairs of sysadmins,

  • It was called the calculator watch.
  • Yes, PDAs (Linux based or otherwise) have come and gone. What's different about the Simputer is:
    1. 1.
    2. It's designed by the people it is meant to serve. As much as I don't want to refer to India as a "Third World" country, some parts of it is. Maybe they know what there fellow countrymen need better than us (many of who consider a PIII under 1 Ghz passe).
      2. There's some pretty sharp people [simputer.org] designing it. Check out the member's resumes. MIT, University of Pennsylvania, Purdue, Stanford, University of Maryland, etc. Most hardware companies in the US would pretty much kill to get these guys working for them.
      3. Sometimes "used and cheap" isn't the best. Although recycling older systems from the "First World" to the third has it's benefits to us and them, why not give them something fast to start? The software written in some village in the middle of nowhere might just help us all. As I recall some other good ideas [mkgandhi.org] that came out of India.
      4. It's not just a PDA. According to the objectives of the Simputer Trust [simputer.org] this is meant to be a "low cost computational device ... for the rural, semi-rural and lower income bracket persons".
      5. It's built to take a beating. IMHO the Simputer should last a lot longer than any Palm or iPaq after a drop in a rice patty (or someplace worse).

    Before you complain about the type/number of ports, screen or color of the case remember this: if you are reading this posting chances are you're not their targeted customer.

    pherris

  • Why dont they make an inexpensive, complex handheld device and call it the Computer..oh, dang, hang on.
  • The same could be said of television yet you can see TV sets in villages throughout the developing world. I don't think anybody is fooling themselves that every subsistance farmer will buy one of these but if its useful then there may well one or two within walking distance.

    If it gives a few farmers the information they need to know who is cheating them or pocketing money intended for them then it would be a worthwhile effort.

  • Sure, nice generalization there buddy. The fact is there's over a billion people there in a poor country where some of the best computer engineers come from. So it's not correct to assume that most of the people there are farmers or even involved in farming. This is a great tool for some smart kids without resources. Otherwise I guess your argument could be used against the sale of iMacs in the US.
  • by krugdm (322700) <slashdot@@@ikrug...com> on Wednesday May 02, 2001 @12:11PM (#250468) Homepage Journal
    ...why does the "poor illiterate farmer" out in the fields need a computer? Just because you can mass-produce an inexpensive computer for the masses, doesn't necessarily mean that everyone in the masses actually needs one. Or wants one for that matter.
  • They had to call it "Simputer" because "IMac" was already taken.

It is the quality rather than the quantity that matters. - Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65)

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