October 5, 2011 2:54 pm

India unveils cheapest tablet computer

The world’s cheapest tablet computer, on sale for as little as $35, has been unveiled in India in the latest attempt by the emerging economy to shift from being a global outsourcing centre to one of frugal innovation for lower-income consumers.

Wednesday’s launch of the Aakash – which means “sky” in Hindi – is designed to boost e-learning to help India solve its education problems and bridge the digital divide that sees Asia’s third-largest economy lag behind its emerging market peers in internet access.

“The rich have access to the digital world; the poor and ordinary have been excluded. Aakash will end that digital divide,” said Kapil Sibal, the education minister, who came up with the idea for an ultra low-cost tablet.

The Indian government put out a tender for the tablet to be developed, and plans to sell 100,000 units of the finished product to students in secondary schools for $35. Aakash has the same sized screen as the 7-inch Amazon Kindle Fire, which launched last week to great fanfare for $199, but which has less sophisticated features. Meanwhile, consumers will be able to buy a retail version for about $60.

The cut-price laptop will further sideline the non-profit One Laptop Per Child project, set up by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte, which has been aiming to bring $100 laptops to children in poor countries. The OLPC foundation failed to reach the $100 price tag, with machines selling for just over $200. They have seen orders from governments in Latin America and Africa, with around 2m machines distributed. However, they had not had a good response from the Indian authorities.

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Aakash, which has been developed by DataWind, a small UK-based group owned by a Canadian entrepreneur of Indian descent, runs on Google’s Android platform, comes with a 2GB memory card in a slot that supports up to 32GB, and two USB ports.

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The device will also have WiFi connectivity that could help boost internet usage in a country where it is dismally low. According to 2009 data, India has 5.1 internet users for every 100 people, compared with 39.2 Brazil and 28.5 for China.

Aakash comes two years after Indian carmaker Tata Motors released the Nano, the world’s cheapest car at about $2,000, and as a growing number of domestic companies are producing affordable consumer goods for lower-income consumers.

Siemens, the German engineering group; Ford, the US carmaker; and Nokia, the Finnish mobile maker, have joined a growing number of foreign companies that have been producing affordable products for poorer consumers.

However, the Nano’s disappointing sales since its 2009 launch has raised concerns among analysts about the low-cost laptop’s ability to become an attractive product for India’s rising middle-class, which has shown greater interest in more sophisticated products than in affordable consumer goods.

As analysts have noted, no one wants to be seen in the “world’s cheapest car” – whether they’ll want to be seen with “the world’s cheapest computer” is a matter of some debate.

“[Aakash] might suffer the Nano syndrome,” said Shashi Bhusan, technology analyst at brokerage Prabhudas Lilladher. “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.”

George Mathew, director of Delhi’s Institute of Social Sciences, said that while Aakash could be helpful if kept in village schools with proper facilities – something the majority of Indian schools lack – it would do little to alleviate India’s systemic education problems.

“It is charity of a very superficial nature,” Mr Mathew said. “It has nothing to do with the structure and permanency of our society and our system – you have to work for systemic change.”

Additional reporting by Maija Palmer in London

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