Cheap Indian Tablet Seeks to Bridge Digital Divide

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

India has had many false starts in innovating in information technology. While the country and its talented army of software engineers have a global reputation for innovation, the fits and starts that have accompanied attempts to create new hardware and devices have drawn a range of emotions, from amusement to frustration.

India faces an urgent problem: the country is falling behind others in the global South in access to the Internet. Based on 2009 data, there are 5.1 Internet users for every 100 Indians. This compares poorly with Brazil at 39.2 per 100 and China at 28.5.

The challenge is to find inexpensive devices that allow people to access the Internet through mobile phone networks. With 37 percent of India’s 1.21 billion people living below the official poverty line – and some estimates placing the number at up to 77 percent – cheap devices are urgently needed to reach the poor. A study developed by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI),  found eight Indian states account for more poor people than the 26 poorest African countries combined. The Indian states had 421 million “poor” people, compared to 410 million poor in the poorest African countries, it concluded.

The World Bank recently criticised India for lacklustre results in addressing poverty levels.

Five years ago, the Indian government launched a competitive search for an inexpensive device for the masses. The government has been supporting the development of these devices through its National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (Sakshat) (http://www.sakshat.ac.in). It aims to link 25,000 colleges and 400 universities in India in an e-learning program.

The motivation behind these attempts is a good one: to try and find an affordable device to bridge the digital divide (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide) and reach the majority of the population living on less than US $2 a day.

But the search has had mixed results.

Low points included a failed attempt to make a rival to the One Laptop Per Child (http://www.onelaptop.org) computer from MIT (Massachusetts Institute for Technology) with an Indian version selling for US $10. What was offered instead in 2009 was a device with no screen or keyboard, requiring an additional laptop and paper to access its stored files. It was also made in Taiwan, rather than India.

Another first stab at making a US $35 tablet computer was launched in 2010 with much fanfare, but by January 2011 the Indian government had dropped manufacturers HCL Technologies for failing to honour its 600 million rupee (US $13 million) contract.

What these first steps show is the complexity of hardware development and how challenging it is to get the user experience right for customers while keeping the price affordable.

But India recently relaunched what it is calling the world’s cheapest tablet computer, selling for US $35. It is called Aakash (http://www.akashslate.com) (http://www.aakashcomputer.co.in), meaning “sky” in the Sanskrit language, and is being sold as an e-learning tool to bridge the digital divide in the country.

The utility of tablets (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tablet_personal_computer) and e-readers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_e-book_readers) for people in the global South is clear: they can enable people to bypass the lack of local library facilities to store vast personal archives of books. This is a powerful educational tool: imagine a village doctor with easy access to thousands of medical texts and papers, or a child preparing for university exams no longer having to worry they can find study texts. It also is a cost-effective way to publish in many local languages and break the stranglehold English-language publishing has had on delivering e-books.

Aakash will be sold for US $35 to educational institutions and marketed for private sale for US $61 under the UbiSlate brand name (http://www.ubisurfer.com). It is also hoped the tablet can be sold in the UK and the USA.

Jointly developed by engineers in India, Canada and the UK, it will be assembled at DataWind’s manufacturing plant in Hyderabad, India (http://datawind.com/products.html). Datawind also makes other low-cost, portable devices like the PocketSurfer3 (http://www.pocketsurfer.co.uk).

The project is run by two Indian-born Canadians, DataWind chief executive officer Suneet Singh Tuli and his brother Raja Singh Tuli.

Based in Montreal, Canada, DataWind bills itself as “a leading developer of wireless web access products and services.”

Suneet Singh Tuli wants to sell 1 million tablets a month. The first 100,000 tablets are being bought by the Indian government and then sold to university students.

The Aakash uses the Google Android operating system (http://www.android.com) and has a WiFi capability, 17.78 centimetre wide screen, two USB ports (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USB) and battery that can last three hours. It can stream high-definition videos, read e-books and run Microsoft Windows Office applications.

The components in the device are a mix, including parts DataWind has designed itself to save costs.

“This is not a one-time opportunity,” Suneet Singh Tuli told the Toronto Star newspaper. “There are 2½ to 3 million students entering university every year, as well as 80 million students in Grades 9 to 12, and the government is very serious about making mobile products available to this age group.

“I could tell you a romantic story about two Indian brothers who arrive in Montreal to get a great Canadian education, become citizens, and then go back to India to bring Internet to the masses,” says Tuli.

“But the reality is, this is all about profit – my investors and board wouldn’t want it any other way.”

To compare, the Amazon Kindle Fire device (http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Fire-Color/dp/B0051VVOB2), which launched recently, sells for US $199 and has fewer features.

“The rich have access to the digital world; the poor and ordinary have been excluded. Aakash will end that digital divide,” Kapil Sibal, India’s education minister told the Financial Times.

India’s initiatives are heating up competition with the One Laptop Per Child project set up by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte (http://one.laptop.org). The colourful OLPC laptop sells for around US $200, and 2 million have been distributed to Latin America, Africa elsewhere.

While many companies and entrepreneurs are developing products for the poor and the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) markets, it is still a difficult thing to get right. A big issue is aspiration: consumers are still attracted to products they perceive as aspirational and quality, despite a higher price.

“(Aakash) might suffer the Nano syndrome,” Shashi Bhusan, technology analyst at brokerage Prabhudas Lilladher, told the Financial Times, referring to the cheap made-in-India car that failed to catch on (http://tatanano.inservices.tatamotors.com/tatamotors). “It is always difficult to predict the market’s reaction to a product, but what we have learnt from the Nano is that people don’t want to buy the ‘car-like’ product, they want the real thing … I feel the same will probably happen with this ‘laptop-like’ product.”

And others strongly disagree that gadgets can transcend the deep-seated social problems that need radical change.

“It is charity of a very superficial nature,” said George Mathew, director of Delhi’s Institute of Social Sciences. “It has nothing to do with the structure and permanency of our society and our system – you have to work for systemic change.”

Earlier this year an Indian company produced a rival to Amazon’s Kindle (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kindle-Store/b?ie=UTF8&node=341677031). The Wink (http://www.thewinkstore.com/ereader/index) is designed to accommodate 15 common Indian languages, comes in an eye-catching design and is complemented by a sleek website stuffed with e-books ready for download. The entire package is very well-thought-out and marketed.

The Wink was developed and built by EC Media International and retails, according to its website, for Rs 8,999 (US $200). It looks similar to the Kindle, but where the Kindle is grey the Wink is white. This Indian rival has some impressive capabilities: it can not only support 15 Indian languages, it can also access an online library of more than 200,000 book titles. They range from arts and entertainment to biography, newspapers and science topics. There is also a large archive of free books for download.

But it has come in for criticism for its price, which some say is far too high for the Indian market.

As has been shown by the information technology experience in other countries, it is constant innovation and trial and error which will eventually create successes. But with persistence, this is one space to keep watching.

Resources

1) How to build your own personal computer: This guide helps to demystify computing hardware and shows how to build a computer at home. Website: http://www.buildeasypc.com/

2) Hardware design and architecture: An archive of free e-books on all aspects of computer hardware and architecture design. An outstanding resource to get anyone started in computer engineering. Website: http://www.e-booksdirectory.com/listing.php?category=38

3) Jonathan Ive is the man behind the highly successful and user-friendly modern design that has turned the Apple computer brand into such a global success story. He provides tips on how to design usable computer hardware and shares the secrets of his success. Website: http://www.wired.com/culture/design/news/2003/06/59381

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