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Simputer's Ajit Anvekar: Keeping up the Open Source 'josh'

By JT Smith on June 19, 2001 (8:00:00 AM)

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- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people -
Ajit R. Anvekar didn't grow up with a computer, in fact, he bought his own PC only about two years ago, but he has already contributed to one of the best examples of Open Source's potential effect on the digital divide. The Simputer (Simple In-expensive Multi-lingual People's Computer) is a pocket-size computer, running Linux, that is designed to overcome traditional barriers to computing, like literacy, by offering a "simple and natural user interface based on sight, touch and audio."

Anvekar worked for the Simputer Project in the Computer Science Automation (CSA) Department of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) as a software programmer/systems specialist until last month, when the Simputer's specs were released. Now he is with Picopeta Simputers, which plans to commercialize the platform.

Interested in embedded systems, Anvekar signed up with Simputer to work on the audio driver, a key element considering "the use of extensive audio in the form of text-to-speech and audio snippets" is proclaimed to be one of the three main advantages Simputer boasts over other handhelds. (The other two are its smart card reader and its XML-based Information Markup Language.)

He first learned to write code in the early '90s while earning a Bachelor's degree in engineering in electronics and communication from Siddaganga Institute of Technology in Tumkur, India. He spent six months at the Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) at the Defense Research and Design Organization (DRDO) in Bangalore on project work for his degree.

"The project involved writing Assembly code for a micro-controller to test out the suitability of a communication link for reliable transmission. LRDE had a board designed for the purpose and we were let loose on the board.

"We wrote a lot of routines for the particular processor. It gave us a clear understanding as to how systems work, what actually goes on in getting them to work and what an exhilarating feeling -- the board actually runs our software and it works! It was the first time we came in contact with real machines and also that the theory they taught in college really had some relation to what was going on in real life."

"After graduation I joined a project called Education and Research Network (ERNET) here [in Bangalore] at the Indian Institute of Science. As with most educational institutions, Linux was/is thriving here."

He got his first real taste of Linux while there working on the Wide Area Link Emulator (WALE).

He says he has "never used proprietary software actively at all," and he finds his Open Source leanings are confirmed by the consistently more learned and practical technicians who use it.

It is not uncommon to be an IT worker of Indian descent but it is a bit unusual to be an IT worker of Indian descent working in India. But Anvekar has decided to stay close to home.

His name, Anvekar, comes from Anve, a town in Goa, a small beach-side state just north of Karnataka. But Ajit's Anvekars have lived mostly in or around Bangalore, Karnataka's capital. Soon after he was born in 1972 in Karwar, Karnataka, his family moved back to Bangalore, leaving for only a few years before returning again to Bangalore, where Anvekar now lives with his retired parents, neither of which worked in the IT industry.

He has never been to the United States but he admires its energy for innovation. He admits that access to technology is currently difficult in India but he is confident, coming off of a project potentially pushing India's industry to the forefront, that as long as people maintain the "josh," which he explains as Hindi for spirit/fire/enthusiasm, technology will continue to evolve effectively.

He says if he had not gone into computing he would have been in the auto industry. He still hopes to take some classes on weekends and eventually set up his own Formula Cars brand. "But nowadays," he concedes, "nobody can do without a computer."

And that's what the Simputer just may accomplish. It is small, portable, can run on three AAA batteries, and uses a smartcard that allows the device to be shared by entire communities.

With the Simputer, explains the text at Simputer.org, "The village school, a kiosk, a village postman, or even a shopkeeper should be able to loan the device to individuals for some length of time and then pass it on to others in the community. The Simputer, through its Smart Card feature allows for personal information management at the individual level for an unlimited number of users.

"The impact of this feature coupled with the rich connectivity of the Simputer can be dramatic. Applications in diverse sectors such as micro banking, large data collection, agricultural information and as a school laboratory is now made possible at an affordable price."

The recent release has been covered in a lot of the major media outlets in India including the Times of India which reported, "With Linux operating system, 32-bit CPU, 32 MB DRAM, Boot ROM, touch screen, pretty-good-privacy encryption software and in-built modem among other features, the device takes the cake for smartcard reader/writer." The article promised revolutionary changes in banking and e-commerce with the Simputer.

The story continued: "Slated to be priced at Rs 9,000 (US$200), Simputer extensively uses widely available free public domain software, both for operating and developing customized applications. 'Once the product is launched, we will also publish the application programming interfaces to enable others to develop applications for the device. The hardware design will be open and extensible so that any licensee can add value to the platform,' the IISc team added."

I was in India in 1993 but I was not learning to write code. Instead, we walked through provincial streets, negotiating in Hindi with grossers over their carts of colorful fruits and vegetables. It was beautiful and fascinating but considering that the most interesting technology in Udaipur amounted to a complex system of open sewers and the earthen mugs the chai-guy would fill with sweet and milky spiced tea and offer us between the bars on the train windows, we concentrated more on the past than on the future.

But now, eight years later, as I follow up my communications with Anvekar, by searching the Web I find each detail represented by a vast array of English language sites built (or commissioned) by corresponding local governments or institutions.

I doubt that Udaipur has changed very much since I explored its streets, but I am thankful for being reminded of the awe-inspiring contrast offered by a country so vast and old as India. And I find the notion that the same villages we toured with the accompanying organizations working with the local community to eradicate simple yet highly repercussive health issues, should be armed with Simputers.

I'm not at all suggesting cynicism. On the contrary, if these computers move beyond urban areas and into the remotest of rural areas, wouldn't it be interesting to see villages gain access to computers before they are infiltrated by television? Grass-roots organizations able to add smart cards to their micro-banking tutorials? Rural craftsman able to track their products electronically?

The Simputer is an idea with a myriad of ground-breaking possibilities.

Anybody who, like Anvekar, is romantic enough to find Judy Garland fascinating, undoubtedly possesses the proper amount of imagination and romanticism to foster the "josh" necessary to maximize the benefits and continue to develop these new technologies.

More About Ajit Anvekar

Mail Reader: Pine.

Editor: vi

Linux distribution: "Mostly Red Hat, though lately I have been using Debian/Progeny and liking it for a start."

Snack food: Burgers

Singer: Lata Mangeshkar

Book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig; As the Crow flies by Jeffery Archer; Illusions by Richard Bach.

Sport: Long-distance bicycle riding.

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Simputer's Ajit Anvekar: Keeping up the Open Source 'josh'

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 59.92.208.8] on August 17, 2007 11:21 AM
Dude,
Great to see an article on you.........
Keep the JOSH ;)

Pradeep MR.

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Simputer's Ajit Anvekar: Keeping up the Open Source 'josh'

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 202.142.67.182] on December 11, 2007 03:07 PM
hi ajit... loooooong time...ramu here...good to see an article abt you...reminded me the days we played cric infront of ERNET lab...send me a mail on prasannakumar.rvr@gmail.com...

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