On paper, Notion Ink’s upcoming tablet computer, called Adam, beats Apple Inc.’s iPad by a mile.
Among its many lofty ambitions, the Hyderabad-based company’s 10-inch screen prototype boasts a revolutionary “transflective” display developed by US-based company Pixel Qi. Unlike most LCD screens, which become useless in bright sunlight, a transflective display can switch, with a flick of a button, between bright LCD colour and a black and white reflective display like those in e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle.
In January, when Notion Ink demonstrated the device at consumer electronics expo CES 2010 in Las Vegas, popular technology blog Gizmodo called it “one of the most exciting devices” at the show.
Big fish: (from left) Rohit Rathi, Rohan Shravan and Sachin Ralhan are the brains behind Adam.
Attempting to beat Apple at its own game is quite a feat for a three-year-old company managed by seven 24- to 26-year-olds. But these upstarts and the 60 or so trainees working with them have pulled off a string of impressive coding, hardware engineering, legal and marketing feats to get this far.
Founder and director, creatives, Rohan Shravan, the man who conceptualized Adam, talks with starry-eyed idealism that seems to have remained intact from 2007, when he first began tinkering with the idea of a tablet PC. “I was inspired by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project that aimed to build a $100 (around Rs4,740) laptop. The project hit roadblocks because they were aiming for universal usage with an expensive device,” he says. “I wanted to build something cheaper and more universally accessible than a laptop.”
One tablet to rule them all
In its current form, the Adam is 12.9mm thick, is capable of high-definition video playback, has a special “swivel” camera that can swing 180 degrees, and a touch pad at the back. It runs Google’s Android operating system, and is working towards Flash compatibility, which the iPad rejects completely. The operational details of the device are still closely guarded, so it’s impossible to say if Notion Ink will deliver on all its promises.
But why a tablet, when there are no commercially successful precursors before the iPad? Shravan says he was always positive it had to be a mobile device. “Mobile broadband speeds are getting better and technology is getting cheaper. Plus, nothing is more convenient than a tablet. I was also convinced that the mode of interaction with computers had to change. We cannot stay restricted to keyboards any more.”
Shravan was keen that Adam not be influenced by any one of its competitors, especially the iPad. “I knew the iPad was in development because I follow patents very closely. And I was hoping it did not release while we were developing Adam, just so our creativity didn’t get stilted,” says Shravan.
The iPad is now a household buzzword, but Notion Ink says Adam is more like the Microsoft Courier than an Apple device. The Courier was a Microsoft prototype with two touch screens fitted together like an open book. The device was rumoured to have used advanced handwriting recognition, but the company said in April that the product was only a prototype and never meant for a commercial launch.
That’s a warning sign, says Diptarup Chakraborti, principal analyst at market research firm Gartner. “Think about the iPod competitors that were once launched by Sony, Microsoft and Creative. They were far superior to the iPod and yet they didn’t take off purely because they couldn’t match Apple’s brand and marketing,” he says. “The iPhone is far more expensive than its competitors, yet it is successful. It isn’t about features or price alone.”
He cites the example of the Simputer, a low-cost, hand-held computer developed in India in 1999 which never met its sales goal because it wasn’t marketed right.
“Notion Ink’s best bet is to piggyback on a known brand like Sony. That way, even if they are the original design manufacturers in the beginning, they can go on to develop more products with the initial success,” says Chakraborti.
Chakraborti says Notion Ink isn’t known well enough, despite the media splash. “If I were to stick my neck out and venture an opinion, I’d say they are not ready to take on an iPad.”
With the device still in the prototype stage, the question becomes: How will Notion Ink manage to pack in so many features into a 1.7-pound book—a 3.2-megapixel swivel camera, Pixel Qi screen that works equally well in sunlight, a 16-hour battery life, accelerometer (a device to detect the rotation of the tablet so the screen can be adjusted), Wi-Fi, 3G and Bluetooth? Shravan says they started bottom-up, with use-cases as a starting point. “We first focused on the functionality in Adam, unlike device manufacturers who decide on the technical components first. In their case, the features of the device depend on what the components can support”.
That’s how the swivel camera found its place on the Adam. Shravan knew the Adam needed a scanning device, as well as a camera that could capture presentations and the user in a video conference. This led to the genesis of a swivel camera that can rotate 180 degrees. “The touch pad on the back got thrown in because we didn’t want the screen getting smudged by fingerprints,” he says.
Designing a feature-rich product has turned out to be a complex job—a multidisciplinary one not meant just for code-hacks and hardware engineers. It needed inputs from automobile, aerospace, metallurgical engineering, and so on. For example, the internal airflow mechanism in a tablet and the temperature to which the outside cover can potentially heat up had to be studied thoroughly. “While this is done by the manufacturer (a Taiwan company whose name Shravan doesn’t want to disclose), it helped that I am a mechanical engineer, while my team comes from electrical and computer science disciplines,” says Shravan.
Yet it wasn’t all smooth sailing. An attempt to collaborate with the National Institute of Design on the Adam’s user interface proved to be a disaster, says Shravan. While the students there were brilliant, they lacked guidance and this meant no one really even grasped what Notion Ink was working on. After repeated aborted starts, Notion Ink quit the collaboration and is still working on the user interface.
Meanwhile, applications had to be developed, and quickly, on Google’s Android operating system to compete with Apple’s cutting-edge app store for iPad. This was tough because India does not have many Android developers.
Notion Ink found an innovative way out. “We approached Hyderabad’s BV Raju Institute of Technology (BVRIT) and struck a deal,” says Shravan. “In return for infrastructure, Notion Ink, along with friends from companies like Oracle and Google, offered to train their students.” The training meant not attending college, yet two of BVRIT’s colleges agreed to the deal. Today, Notion has 35 students who are experts with Android on Nvidia’s Tegra and Java. “In Las Vegas, while demonstrating one of our apps to the Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, I was asked to create a new gesture for the e-book reader. I called my team in Hyderabad and they pulled it off in minutes,” says Shravan.
All this functionality needs patenting, of course, but “India has no concept of a software patent”, rues the young engineer. So the Notion Ink team had to work its way around legalities to patent features such as the back-track pad. “It was primarily a software innovation, but we had (to) rework it on the driver level so it became patentable under Indian law,” says Shravan. The critical patents have to be registered in the US and Taiwan; Notion Ink is in the process of filing these.
Currently, Notion Ink is working with telecom operators in the US and India for 3G certification and interoperability testing, among others. This is a major exercise in itself. “One of the tests involves the telecom company putting the Adam in a car and test-driving it cross-country to see if it works seamlessly,” says Shravan.
Ask for a sneak peek of some of the latest apps Notion Ink has developed for Adam, and Shravan reacts with a new-found reticence. “I can’t say much,” he says, “but we have an email application that can do some pretty fancy things, like pulling back an email from the inbox of the recipient. Then there is the magazine-user interface which I believe will (be) the future of UI (user interface)”.
This hyberbole, unfortunately, has always gone hand-in-hand with the Adam. It promises a battery life three times that of the iPad, and “beautiful results” with gestures and heavy graphical applications. These are features bigger firms have struggled with for years. The Adam, enveloped in a heavy dose of scepticism, was originally scheduled to launch in June. But it will now be out later this year, around the festival season, in India and the US, at a price point between $400-800 against the $499 of the iPad.
As a footnote, Shravan brings up three films that kindled his enthusiasm—October Sky, a 1999 flick based on the true story of Homer Hickam, a Nasa scientist who was inspired as a teenager in a coal-miners’ town by the sight of the Sputnik launch; Big Fish—a whimsical 2003 Tim Burton film; and, strangely, Pan’s Labyrinth—a dark Spanish fantasy film released in 2006. Shravan is quick to explain his odd choices. “Pan’s Labyrinth is about dreaming about something so strongly that it becomes real,” he elaborates. “And Big Fish taught me that just as the success of any story depends on how it is narrated, the success of a product depends on how it is built.”