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Thursday, May 06, 2004

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Info-Tech - Hardware

The academics' challenge

Madhumathi D. S.

Selling Amida, the Simputer, is not a simple task. Catalyst looks at its creators' strategy to meet the test.

Inventors Dr Swami Manohar, CEO, PicoPeta Simputers (right) and Dr V. Vinay, Chairman

IN a smartly done up bungalow-turned-office in Bangalore's upmarket RMV Extension, it is the end of another busy day for young Suhas and his friends. They must have uttered `PicoPeta Simputers, how can I help you?' some 50 times through the day and then there are at least a dozen e-mail queries from across the globe to handle. The call centre has been up for barely a month, there has been no eye-hitting ad campaign and Suhas can only marvel at the "booming interest" his team has been tracking in this one unusual product.

They call it Amida, the boundless. Three years ago, it sprang out of a public lab (a famed one at that) as a humble digital device for the masses. Its stark, free-spirit features and crack potential left the computing world breathless and Cassandras emerged even as its creators spoke, in low key, of the big things their small wonder can do.

Somewhere on its journey from the lab to the marketplace, the first Indian SIMple mobile comPUTER has evolved. From being merely the poor man's shared machine, it has transited to having its own brand identity and market aspirations. Today it wants to be an object of desire for you and me and virtually anybody looking to have the finest in mobile computing.

Enter Amida (from amita), a brand that the Simputer now is. The unusual child of an unlikely enterprise from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, has gone retail for over a month now. It has also brought about a rare synergy between PicoPeta Simputers Pvt Ltd and Bharat Electronics, with one licensed partner providing the design, technology and software solutions; the other lending its defence-class assembly line and rich market experience.

The Web store is up and more than a hundred pieces sold to individuals, says Dr Swami Manohar, Simputer co-inventor, IISc don and CEO of PicoPeta. The old BEL headquarters on Race Course Road is being refurbished into a vibrant showroom. There will be more.

Ask about the market picture and let the don pleasantly surprise you with his sales savvy: on positioning, experiential marketing, on how to drive up volumes and the current low level of computer penetration in the country. The Amida's USP, he says, is its affordability (three versions in the Rs 9,950-19,950 band) plus the ease of use. It is being positioned as a full-fledged wireless mobile computer, cool and powerful like a laptop, as handy as a smart phone and much more than a PDA.

Currently barely 5-10 per cent of Indians are accessing IT for either its high cost or complexities of technology, so this is for anyone digitally on the go, e-savvy teenager, urban executive, salesman, mom or dad at home, electricity billing agent or automating enterprise. As its name says, there is little one cannot do on it - from Linux-based keyboard-less computing, writing mail, Web browsing, listening to MP3 music, to something unheard of yet: scribbling messages or doodles in your handwriting, in your language, to another enabled machine.

The twin game plan is to somewhat split the retail and the enterprise segments between the partners. While old warhorse BEL is no stranger to civilian products or enterprise marketing, "the challenge here is that so far, none of BEL's products was in public domain the way Amida will be," according to BEL veteran S. C. Khanna, Director (Commercial & Management Services), Bangalore.

Typically for a gadget borne out of rather Gandhian motives, there is no aggressive sales pitch. The idea is not at all to upstage any existing product but to enthuse desktop and laptop owners alike into owning an Amida Simputer. "Just as I work on my 19" monitor at office and check out on the Simputer for everything from mail to news when I drive to and from home, or on travel," explains Dr V. Vinay of IISc, its chief technologist and PicoPeta Chairman. "You should be able to go digital whenever and wherever you want without the hassles of technology."

The BEL-PicoPeta field strategy is gliding into place. "We're getting young, technology-savvy executives to promote, experiment and be seen with the device. We want to have people touch and feel the Amida before they buy it," says Dr Manohar.

Over the next 3-6 months, the plan is to have 5,000 people experience the gadget for 15 minutes each. When the individuals have tested and their data captured on the Amida itself, you have a market survey in itself to follow up, as Nagarjuna K., the young Head of Retail Marketing, puts it.

The focus is now on Bangalore, where BEL-PicoPeta will look at all high-visibility options such as coffee chains, shopping malls and bookstores. A band of trained `Amida angels' may next go out to demonstrate on request. Next on the map are Mumbai, Delhi and other cities.

That's not to say it was roses all the way for a revolutionary technology product. For design and software solutions partner PicoPeta, conceiving and developing the Simputer perhaps was the easier part. The marketing, advertising and finance of it, admits Dr Vinay, turned out to be worlds apart from pursuing academics on a quiet campus. "Three years in business taught us some new things. For one, that "nobody wants to buy ration rice." It had to be attractive first to those who can afford it now - the city slickers - who would let it percolate to the rest.

When institutions did not come in as expected to take risks with an untested technology, PicoPeta built the entire software from scratch over 14 months. It made three versions - basic, advanced and colour - in three price bands of Rs 9,950 for Amida 1200, Rs 12,450 for A 1600 and Rs 19,950 for A 4200. From a community device to be bought by institutions, the palm-sized Simputer was jazzed up in chocolate brown and carbon black to look as attractive as a PDA. Simple music became MP3. "This is like writing your first novel. However good it is, we need to get the volumes, which, otherwise, would take us years to reach. If we had any business sense, we'd have done it in the first place."

That, according to Dr Vinay, doesn't mean a compromise on the ideals. "The focus hasn't changed, our intention is still to see that the digital divide is crossed. Only the strategy has."

If all the callers' positive inclinations turn into sales, Manohar anticipates that 40,000-50,000 Amidas could get sold in the very first year. Between his estimate and that of Basavarajaiah, Director of BEL's Bangalore Complex, that should be a dream turnover of Rs 75 crore-125 crore mostly for a company that MIT in 2001 voted as among the seven hottest academic start-ups in the world. "In the long run, we want to have people buy Amidas for their children, as gifts for their friends, and for the executive's mom who wants to send out e-mails."

Inquiries are streaming in from companies for Amida's enterprise applications and BEL, with whom PicoPeta tied up 18 months ago, is working up the lather for that segment. Khanna, with his Defence upbringing, would rather play safe with names and numbers. (After all, the Amida also has to watch out for its competitor from another licensed manufacturer, Encore Software Ltd, right here in Bangalore.)

If the retail segment is hard to predict, to develop the enterprise segment can be a slow process, says Khanna. The scope with a wireless handheld is vast: you can put the Amida on the job for e-governance as the Karnataka Government has done for its acclaimed land records project Bhoomi and updating crop data; several other State Governments and their utilities are eyeing it for applications such as spot billing.

In the health sector, Bangalore-based mental health institute Nimhans and the National TB Institute of Singapore have plans to do their surveys on the Amida. If microfinance institution Cashpor started by Bangla Grameen Bank co-founder David Gibbons also seems to have an Amida idea, corporates like Reliance, VSNL and Sify are not far behind.

The BEL-PicoPeta combine has roped in a media partner for advertising on a modest scale but the campaign won't be done right away. A marketing consultant may be soon on board.

A customer-friendly post-sales support system is being put in place. Khanna says the next step will be to finalise the dealership arrangement in the coming months. With Fabmall also in the game to do bookings, credit card authentication, cash realisation and deliveries and exports to follow next, the Amida Simputer seems all set to go.

"We're here for the long haul," says Manohar. With a national rollout in Delhi getting unfurled, the coming six months should tell if Amida has arrived indeed.

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