$45 tablet may not be the magic pill India needs, say experts

$45 tablet may not be the magic pill India needs, say experts

New Delhi: The much-hyped launch of the world’s cheapest tablet in India created the requisite ripples, but the pedestrian technical specifications of the device, and feedback from people who have been exposed to or tested the product, suggests that it won’t win any awards for performance, design, or even utility.

The product was launched by human resources development (HRD), telecom and information technology (IT) minister Kapil Sibal, who sought to pre-empt criticism by saying, “Tomorrow critics will go to Facebook to say that ‘this is a crude product’. What we have to tell them is, ‘the product is not crude, but your comments are’."

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The seven-inch touchscreen tablet runs on the Android 2.2 operating system (but provides access to only select Android apps) and is the final output of a plan conceived nearly six years ago by India’s HRD ministry. Then (a time when neither Android nor touchscreen tablets were around), the form conceived was a $10 laptop computer.

The tablet, christened Aakash, is priced at Rs2,250 (around $45), though this number is expected to come down to $35 as volumes increase. Sibal said the government will give a 50% subsidy to colleges, making the product available to them for Rs1,150. He added that the ultimate aim was a $10 price point.

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In the first phase, the government will buy 100,000 tablets from the device’s maker, DataWind Ltd. In the second phase, it will buy 900,000 more. The price will then drop to $35, roughly Rs1,750, and be given to colleges at a 50% discount.

The product is being made at QUAD Electronics Solution Pvt. Ltd, a company based in Andhra Pradesh. Suneet Singh Tuli, chief executive of DataWind, based in Canada, said the tablet dispels the notion that the cheapest computer can’t roll out of India.

Abhishek Debroy, a student of the National Institute of Technology, Agartala, who was given the product to test for seven days, said Aakash is a basic model that needs further improvement.

The tablet runs on a 366 MHz processor (its closest rival, the Beetel Magiq tablet from Bharti has a processing power of 1 GHz and retails at Rs9,990) and has 256MB random access memory (RAM) with an in-built memory of 2GB, which is expandable upto 32 GB. The touchscreen that the tablet uses is resistive and not capacitive, unlike most other products in the market. A resistive touchscreen is cheaper, but also less sensitive.

“Its processor is slow, hence it heats up quickly. The touchscreen, too, is not very good, but we understand that a better screen will lead to extra cost," said Debroy, who sent his feedback to the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Rajasthan, which has the responsibility of facilitating the roll-out of the tablet as part of the National Mission on Education through Information, Communication and Technology.

The device also does not allow multitasking and doesn’t give access to the complete popular app store Android Market. Tuli said that by the end of November, the company would launch a variant in the open market, at a price of Rs2,999. This device will have an in-built cellular modem, which means it can use the telephone network to access the Internet and also double up as a mobile phone.

Experts echoed Debroy’s sentiment.

Sumanta Mukherjee, lead analyst, computing products research, CyberMedia Research, said that “though the price of the product is mouthwatering stuff, the specifications are not. Don’t expect a mad rush outside retail stores when it launches".

Vishal Tripathi, principal analyst, Gartner India, said Aakash was not meant for people who wanted a real tablet experience, but for those who want to experience basic computing for the first time. Still, both Mukherjee and Tripathi agreed that the device could see some interest in small towns.

“We have a huge population, and maybe this device serves the purpose for the low end. Once people get used to this, they could upgrade to better devices," said Sandeep Aurora, director, sales and marketing, Intel South Asia.

At least half the 26,000 colleges in India do not have an Internet connection and even fewer are WiFi enabled, constraints that could prevent the government from using the device to provide students access to content such as lectures of IIT and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, professors through the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning. This also means students won’t have access to around 7,500 e-books and thousands of e-journals.

“If this device is meant for the students, then the government should prepare for the entire ecosystem to be ready, which includes infrastructure, content and data-usage price points," said Mukherjee. A successful tablet isn’t just about hardware, he added. It is about “the entire experience".


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