|Technology for digital inclusion
|Vinay L. Deshpande
|Chairman & CEO
|Encore Software Ltd.
Vinay L. Deshpande is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Encore Software Limited and the Managing Trustee of The Simputer Trust. A pioneer of the Indian IT industry, over the past 32 years in India, he has had overall responsibility for development of over 60 hardware and software products. He is the co-founder of Processor Systems (Bangalore, India), of PSI Data Systems Ltd, and of Ncore Technology Pvt. Ltd, which later became Encore Software Ltd. Mr Deshpande is a Senior Member of IEEE and a Fellow of the Indian National Academy of Engineering. In the past, he served as the President of the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology and as a member of many high-level governmental technology task forces. Mr Deshpande has been honoured for his work many times. The World Economic Forum named him one of the world’s 100 Technology Pioneers in 2001 and 2002. India’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology awarded him the1st Dewang Mehta Award for Innovation in Information Technology and he was recently nominated to the International Who’s Who. Mr Deshpande earned his MSEE in Digital Systems from Stanford University and a BE in Electronics & Communications from Osmania University, Hyderabad, India.
Digital inclusion for economic and social growth is a strategic goal of countries around the globe. Today, however, only 11.5 per cent of the world’s one billion or so PCs are in the developing regions. The PC is remarkable, but it is far too expensive, too vulnerable to adverse conditions and requires electrical power not often found in developing regions. Digital inclusion requires an affordable, rugged, ‘information appliance’ that runs on batteries recharged by solar panels and bundled with basic software.
In their quest for economic growth by the application of digital technology, developing countries around the world would like to ensure the inclusion of all strata of their societies in the growth process. It is now increasingly recognised that investments in digital technology are perhaps as important, if not even more important, than direct spending on food, clothing and shelter for the poor: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for life.” Digital technology should therefore be used as a tool for providing the information and knowledge that people need to better their lives – agricultural information (relating to fertilizers, seeds, soil, weather, crop patterns, market prices for farm produce, pest control, etc), information on health, employment, government developmental schemes, land records, etc. Farmers armed with the right information can make better decisions regarding irrigation, sourcing of better farm supplies and equipment, and the marketing of their produce. All this improves their profit by eliminating wasteful intermediation and multiple handling, and aligning of farm outputs to market needs. The resulting growth in rural incomes will trigger the long-term economic growth of the nation. However, obtaining information presents its own challenges – how to acquire information securely, on a timely basis, at low cost, in the native language of the recipient and in a personalized format that meets the user’s information needs. Careful consideration of these factors is important; the technology chosen for digital inclusion will have a considerable impact on the user’s daily life, education, prospects for earning a living, communications, and even leisure-time entertainment. IT for bridging the digital divide Simplicity and ease of use are among the most important attributes of technology for digital inclusion, for otherwise it would not be accepted by the masses. Of course, such technology must also be relatively low-cost and affordable, for it to be practical for mass deployment and adoption. Ruggedness and dust-resistance will facilitate usage in the semi-urban and rural areas where so many reside. Such areas, worldwide, often lack either reliability or even availability of mains power. Consequently, the equipment employed must be able to operate without depending upon mains power. Content and applications must also be available in the local language, since knowledge of English is rarely widespread in developing economies. Indeed, many countries have multiple languages, so multi-lingual capability is critical for adoption of the technology. Finally, the ability to share the equipment would help make the technology even more affordable, if privacy of information can be assured. The Simputer, developed in India, is an example of technology that combines all the above attributes; it also offers local-language text-to-speech capability and a touch-sensitive screen, to facilitate usage even by the illiterate, through pictorial icons for input that result in a spoken, local-language, response! Usage of smart cards facilitates ‘shareability’ while ensuring privacy of information. The personal computer We must examine the personal computer – the PC as we know it – in the context of digital inclusion, as it is many a time used indiscriminately, without regard to either local conditions or the attributes already described above. For starters, the PC has become too complex over the years, resulting in a long learning cycle. It is overkill for most day-to-day tasks – most of its capacity and capability are not used. Needless complexity has made the software ‘buggy’ and unstable, and vulnerable to viruses due to the many ‘security holes’. What is worse, the mains-power situation in most parts of the developing world necessitates the use of an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system. The UPS’s battery backup has to last through the hours a power outage typically lasts, thus adding significantly to the total cost of ownership (TCO). Most advertisements for ‘low-cost PCs’ hide the many additional costs such as UPS, battery, software and annual maintenance charges, which many a time lead owners of PCs to abandon them! Further, the never-ending craze for ‘clock’ speed, hard disk capacity and the latest operating system, drives the obsolescence of otherwise perfectly working models. This rapid evolution of PCs quickly takes previous generations off the market and leads to the non-availability of spares. The PC might suit the developed world’s throwaway culture, but is unfit for people in developing economies who are averse to throwing away perfectly good, working machines! Consequently, the total cost of ownership of a PC restricts the penetration of PCs in the developing world; the penetration there is minuscule – only 11.5 per cent of the over one billion PCs in the world. Developing economies need a solution more appropriate to their situation – they need information appliances, not PCs. Information appliances The desirable features of such information appliances include: operation with rechargeable batteries; no moving parts – hard disk, cooling fans, etc – to fail; low-power LCD ‘touch –screens’; a printer interface; Internet connectivity with built-in wireless or land-line modem; and built-in operating system and e-mail, browser, word processing, music, video player and other applications, so that there are no add-on costs. Memory expansion capability would make it easy to add specific application software for additional individual needs, such as accounting, point-of-sale, inventory control, etc, which could reside in plug-in flash-memory modules. These information appliances have many advantages. They are independent from mains power; since the appliance needs little power, an inexpensive solar panel can recharge the built-in battery. Given the absence of moving parts, the appliances are quite reliable and have little or no maintenance cost. By bundling software with the appliance, there will be no hidden additional costs for application software for everyday use. Thus, the total cost of ownership is both low and known up front. The Mobilis and SofComp, also developed in India, are excellent examples of such information appliances for use in applications that require a larger screen than that of the Simputer mentioned earlier. The Mobilis is a compact, lightweight device with a seven-inch LCD screen and touch overlay. The SofComp is an ultra-compact desktop information appliance that can connect to a larger-screen external monitor or projector; it consumes only two watts of power. Both these appliances incorporate all the attributes mentioned earlier, as does the Simputer, and offer options for additional features, such as GPS. Information appliances, such as the Simputer and Mobilis, facilitate a variety of development-oriented applications. These applications include: • education – student’s assistant – electronic book reader with access to a digital library, streaming and animated multimedia content to facilitate personalized learning within as well as outside the classroom; • health care – tele-diagnosis, patient bedside monitoring, field data collection for health statistics and disease surveillance; • anytime, anywhere banking – micro-credit, mobile banking and low-cost electronic money transfer, especially across international borders, etc; • eGovernance – GPS-assisted GIS applications, field surveys, etc; and, • disaster and emergency management, among many others. Information appliances, such as the SofComp, hold their own in applications such as community kiosks for eGovernance services, especially in remote and rural areas, e-Post services, etc, or as affordable POS (point-of-sale) systems for small (‘mom-and-pop’) shops, especially in rural areas. In fact, the above are only representative examples of the myriad possible applications of affordable information appliances, incorporating the attributes and features we have described above, for use in developing economies. The exact application in each context is limited only by the user’s imagination. Developing nations would do well to consider the above, and use appropriate technology to help usher in inclusive economic growth for their peoples.