Bangalore startup aims to take e-mail to the masses

Planning to tap the potential of e-mail as a low-cost communication medium in developing economies, a Bangalore-based startup, iNabling Technologies, has introduced a US$150 e-mail appliance called iStation that also helps with chores like word processing and spreadsheets.

INabling Technologies is bundling the device with its own Internet service designed exclusively for text-based e-mail. Users will be charged $3 per month for unlimited mail.

"The key objectives of the concept are affordability by the masses, accessibility from any location -- even from outside the towns, and ease of use by those who are not computer savvy," said John Aravamuthan, chief executive officer of iNabling Technologies. "Our revenue model is driven by both device sales and from the service."

The company is targeting its new concept at the community use of e-mail through public e-mail offices (PEOs) using the lines of public call offices (PCOs), which were used to popularize telephony in rural India.

The government of the south Indian state of Karnataka is running a pilot around this concept in 70 villages in one of the state's districts, according to Aravamuthan. The e-mail appliance and the bundled service are also targeted at personal users of e-mail and at the corporate market for use by sales and marketing staff to communicate field reports to corporate offices. INabling Technologies is also looking beyond the Indian market.

"We plan to be in at least 30 countries in the next three to five years," added Aravamuthan. "We will do it through a variety of partnerships."

Taking cheap communications to India's rural masses has been the aim of many initiatives such as mobile call offices (MCOs) that use mobile telephony as a communications tool for village communities, and the Simputer, a sub-$200 handheld Internet browsing and e-mail appliance designed by Bangalore-based Encore Software in tandem with the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

The iStation has been designed from the ground up by iNabling Technologies using standard off-the-shelf components and is being contract manufactured in Mysore near Bangalore.

"To drive down cost, we also developed our own software to save on software licensing fees," said Narasimha Prabhu, the company's chief technology officer. The company has also saved on the back-end infrastructure costs by optimising the network bandwidth and server capacity to handle text-based e-mail traffic.

"If you are an ISP (Internet service provider) who also offers Web browsing, then your costs go up because you are provisioning your server and bandwidth to handle all kinds of traffic," Prabhu said. "We are optimized for far lower traffic. The server at the back end is a gateway that interfaces with the PSTN (public switched telephone network) on the one hand, and with the Internet through a modest 64K bps (bits per second) bandwidth link."

The iStation is built around a processor from Samsung Semiconductor using the ARM7TDMI CPU (central processing unit) core from ARM Ltd. The appliance has an in-house developed GUI (graphical user interface) and device drivers. Besides 256K bytes of SRAM (static random access memory), the iStation has 256K bytes of storage for user data and 256K bytes of storage for application data, implemented in flash memory.

The device, weighing 770 grams, also has a built-in modem, and backlit LCD (liquid crystal display) for night-time viewing. It can be shared by up to five users with individual personal e-mail IDs, and can store up to 250 e-mail addresses. Once the user has entered the user name and password, e-mail can be composed offline. Mail can be simultaneously sent and received by the click of a button through the PSTN.

A premium model of the iStation has features likely to be useful to corporate users, including a spreadsheet, a text editor, calculator and calendar, a provision for uploading and downloading files from a PC and text file printing.

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