Ever since Ratan Tata announced his Rs1 lakh car, India seems to have entered an age of low-cost innovation. General Electric (GE) CEO Jeff Immelt has spoken of “reverse innovation”, where low-cost products are developed in emerging markets and then sold worldwide: In a Harvard Business Review article last year, he gave the example of a $1,000 hand-held electrocardiogram developed in India. General Motors is tying up with Bangalore-based Reva to roll out a cheap electric car in October.
Now, a tablet PC called “Adam”, designed by seven young Indians and part of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, is creating a buzz. Thanks to its superior battery life, one gadget blog even suggests it could “squash (Apple’s) iPad”. The price point is yet unknown, but news reports note that it could give the iPad a run for its money.
But the attention given to these products shouldn’t suggest that India is now a giant hub for innovation. As a New York Times article in December noted, entrepreneurs still struggle in India. The article points to a past where innovators were stifled by the government and a present where they are still stifled by the lack of finance. For instance, despite the proliferation of venture capital investors, there are few “angel” investors ready to provide the seed money. What’s more, the education system also fails to produce creative thinkers: As 3 Idiots will tell you, India doesn’t exactly encourage Funsuk Wangdus.
“Adam” is hardly the first time Indians have made advances in computing innovation. Consider that, a decade ago, scientists from the Indian Institute of Science developed the “simputer”—a simple and cheap hand-held computer. But the device failed to take off thanks, in part, to poor marketing and high licence costs.
In fact, when Indian companies boast of their low costs in the global arena, their success owes itself mostly to cheaper labour, not smarter innovation. In the few occasions when there are innovations involved, it is usually a matter of tinkering with the production process or a matter of employing large economies of scale.
These are fantastic business achievements, but it’s unclear if they count for complete technological breakthroughs. That day will come when a new computer operating system or an alternative to the internal combustion engine is designed in India.
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