Apple’s iPad at $499, Amazon’s Kindle Fire at $199 and the HP TouchPad at $99. How about atablet for $35 with hopes of an eventual $10 price tag?
India on Wednesday unveiled the Aakash, meaning “sky” in Hindi, billed as the world’s least-expensive tablet. The plan is to distribute thousands of sets in coming months to students at a $35 government subsidized rate.
It’s taken several years to develop, faced a lot of skepticism and received help from the taxpayer given the state’s actual cost of around $50.
But the Aakash offers the promise of computing to millions of villagers in rural India who often seem to be living more in the 19th century than the 21st.
“Today we reach to the sky and demonstrate what is possible,” said Kapil Sibal, India’s information technology and human resource development minister. “Let me send a message, not just to our children but the children of the world: This is for all those who are marginalized.”
The 13-ounce touch-screen device can handle basic computing, including email, social networking, surfing, online banking, instant messaging and multimedia. The stripped-down system uses Google’s Android 2.2 operating system and comes with headphones, Wi-Fi access, two USB slots, 256 megabytes of internal memory and a 7-inch screen. It is not considered on the same level of the more advanced tablets available to consumers.
“This will allow basic computing beyond the mobile phone,” said Vishal Tripathi, an analyst with Gartner, a high-tech research firm.
The machine will likely get a strong reception from students in remote areas, many of whom have never used a computer, provided the government can deliver on its promise.
Pervasive corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude have undermined a host of government programs involving everything from food distribution and jobs to health care and road building. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once famously said he was lucky if 15 percent of every rupee got to its intended recipient.
Some critics also questioned the program’s basic premise of providing electronics to help students in rural areas.
“I’m not against computers, but it needs to be thought through,” said Aruna Sankaranarayanan, director of Prayatna, a civic group focused on education. “Most rural schools aren’t even equipped with toilets or teachers. Just giving computers (doesn’t) guarantee computer literacy. There are more crying needs.”
Despite its reputation for call centers and legions of engineers, India still lags in many high-tech areas. Only about half the nation’s 25,000 colleges are linked to the Internet under the government’s National Mission of Education program. Of these, less than 15 percent have broadband of at least 512 kilobits per second.
Many of the potential student users may also see the computers more as a way to chat with friends than read the lectures India is offering online.
“I’ll probably use it mostly for Facebook,” said Ravi Banshiwal, 22, a commerce student from Delhi, with a laugh. “So we need to thank the minister for that. We’ll send him a tweet first thing.”
Suneet Singh Tuli, chief executive of England‘s Datawind, the company that designed, sourced and built the device, said he’s negotiating with Indian telecom carriers for a low rate per month for Internet access bundled with an upgraded Aakash. The current model can only access the web through Wi-Fi hotspots, which are non-existent in many parts of the country.
The Aakash will be assembled in India, and officials expressed hope this would jump start the nation’scomputer hardware industry to complement its software strengths. Around 16 percent of the 800 components are sourced here, while around 70 percent comes from South Korea, Chinaand the United States.
History is littered with well-meaning products that fell short. Initially conceived in 2006 as a personalcomputer, this one morphed into a tablet after repeated delays and coordination problems. Two years ago, Datawind showed off a $10 version that was tarred as little more than a storage device.
Officials hope the device will become cheaper and more powerful over time.
“My target audience is the 1 billion Indians who don’t use the Internet,” said Tuli. “People say ‘Computers for rickshaw wallahs, you must be crazy.’ You watch!”
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