ASHOK KUMAR
Gautam Singh  /  AP
The simputer, a low cost handheld computer designed by Indian scientists, has so far failed to make a dent into the digital divide.
updated 4/5/2005 9:27:06 AM ET 2005-04-05T13:27:06

Four years ago, a low-cost handheld dubbed the Simputer was touted as a way to give villagers in poorer countries access to computing power.  That dream remains elusive.

Very few Indian villagers have even seen one, and the government agencies and nonprofits that were target buyers have barely bitten.

Meager sales of the device, designed by Indian scientists for easy sharing by a community, come instead from businesses and city dwellers who already had access to technology.  "It has not yet reached the rural market in a big way," rued Swami Manohar, co-inventor of the Simputer and CEO of Picopeta Simputers, a company selling the device.

Picopeta has sold fewer than 2,000 units in the past 12 months, far below the target of 50,000. Worse, only 10 percent of those Simputers were bought for rural use.  Encore software, the other company making Simputers, also sold about 2,000 units.

Meanwhile, sales of desktops and laptops are booming in India, with 4 million sold during the 2004-2005 fiscal year and demand expected to grow 35 percent annually.

Back when the Simputer was conceived, in 1998, a desktop sold for $1,140, unaffordable to most in India, where per capita income hovered around $400. Only 3 percent of Indians used computers then.

A group of computer scientists and entrepreneurs built the Simputer — short for simple, inexpensive and multilingual computer — as a handheld with local language support and smart card compatibility. They figured they could sell it for $200 each if they sold enough.  But local governments often prefer to accept donations from Microsoft Corp. and other companies rather than pay for a new technology like the Simputer.

Prices for desktops also have come down, while poor sales of the Simputer kept its costs high.  Encore models start at $250 while Picopeta's start at $225.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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