India is planning to produce a laptop computer for the knockdown price of about $20 (€16, £14), having come up with the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car at about $2,000.

The project, backed by New Delhi, would considerably undercut the so-called “$100 laptop”, otherwise known as the Children’s Machine or XO, that was designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of the US.

The Children’s Machine, which received a cool reception in India, is the centrepiece of the One Laptop Per Child charity initiative launched by Nicholas Negroponte, the computer scientist and former director of MIT’s Media Lab. Intel launched a similar product, called Classmate, in response.

India’s $20 laptop would also undercut the EeePC, made by Taiwan’s Asustek. The EeePC was the first ultra-cheap, scaled-down laptop (a new category known as a netbook) launched worldwide through commercial channels. It does not have a hard drive and sells for $200-$400.

India’s “Sakshat” laptop is intended to boost distance learning to help India fulfil its overwhelming educational needs. It forms part of a broader plan to improve e-learning at more than 18,000 colleges and 400 universities. However, some analysts are sceptical that a $20 laptop would be commercially sustainable and the project has yet to attract a commercial partner.

The ambitous initiative will be under consideration at a National Mission on Education launch in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, on Tuesday. Pioneered in India by scientists at Indian scientific and technological institutes and a state-owned semi-conductor laboratory, the laptop has 2Gb Ram capacity and wireless connectivity.

R.P. Agrawal, secretary of secondary and higher education, told reporters last week that the cost of the laptop was about $20 a unit, but he expected that to fall. He also said he expected the units to be commercially available in six months.

India faces the huge challenge of finding ways to equip its large population, more than 550m of whom are under the age of 25, with contemporary skills. It needs to sustain high economic growth and spread development across the country.

During the next six years, by some estimates, India will need to create another 1,500 universities. Educational institutions in the UK and US are lining up to become partners to help with this huge projected tertiary-level expansion.

Pressure is building on the government to permit foreign investment into the sector and use public-private partnerships to meet some of the demand. Leading universities across the world, such as Kellogg School of Management in the US and Imperial College in the UK, are exploring different models, including faculty partnerships, distance learning and setting up campuses.

But the government appears to favour turning to technology ahead of international partnerships to bring people into higher education.

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