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India unveils world's cheapest tablet computer

India plans to provide the tablet computers, which cost $50, to students at a subsidized rate of $35. Critics say the greater need in rural areas is for teachers.

October 06, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Indian students give the Aakash tablet a try at its launch in New Delhi.
Indian students give the Aakash tablet a try at its launch in New Delhi. (European Pressphoto Agency )

Reporting from New Delhi — Apple's iPad at $499, Amazon's Kindle Fire at $199 and the HP TouchPad at $99. How about a tablet computer for $35 with hope of an eventual $10 price tag?

India on Wednesday unveiled the Aakash, which means "sky" in Hindi, and billed it as the world's least-expensive tablet. The plan is to distribute thousands of the computers in coming months to students at a government-subsidized rate of $35.

It has taken several years to develop, faced a lot of skepticism and received help from taxpayers given the state's actual cost of around $50.

But the Aakash offers the promise of computing to millions of people in rural India who seem to be living more in the 19th century than the 21st.

"Today we reach to the sky and demonstrate what is possible," said Kapil Sibal, India's information technology and human resources development minister. "Let me send a message, not just to our children but the children of the world: This is for all those who are marginalized."

The 13-ounce touch-screen device can handle basic computing, including email, social networking, Web surfing, online banking, instant messaging and multimedia. The stripped-down system uses Google's Android 2.2 operating system and comes with headphones, WiFi access, two USB slots, 256 megabytes of internal memory and a 7-inch screen. It's not considered on the same level as the more advanced tablets available.

"This will allow basic computing beyond the mobile phone," said Vishal Tripathi, an analyst with Gartner, a high-tech research firm.

The device will probably get a strong reception from students in remote areas, many of whom have never used a computer, provided the government can deliver on its promise.

Pervasive corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude have undermined a host of government programs, including food distribution, jobs, healthcare and road building. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi once said he was lucky if 15% of every rupee got to its intended recipient.

Some critics also questioned the program's basic premise of providing electronics to help students in rural areas.

"I'm not against computers, but it needs to be thought through," said Aruna Sankaranarayanan, director of Prayatna, a civic group focused on education. "Most rural schools aren't even equipped with toilets or teachers. Just giving computers [doesn't] guarantee computer literacy. There are more crying needs."

Despite its reputation for call centers and legions of engineers, India still lags in many high-tech areas. Only about half the nation's 25,000 colleges are linked to the Internet under the government's National Mission on Education program. Of these, less than 15% have broadband of at least 512 kilobits per second.

Many of the potential student users may also see the computers more as a way to chat with friends than read the lectures India is offering online.

"I'll probably use it mostly for Facebook," Ravi Banshiwal, 22, a commerce student from Delhi, said with a laugh. "So we need to thank the minister for that. We'll send him a tweet first thing."

Suneet Singh Tuli, chief executive of Britain-based DataWind, the company that designed, sourced and built the device, said he's negotiating with Indian telecom carriers for a low monthly rate for Internet access bundled with an upgraded Aakash. The current model can access the Web only through WiFi hot spots, which are nonexistent in many parts of the country.

The Aakash will be assembled in India, and officials expressed hope that it will jump-start its computer hardware industry and complement the nation's software strengths. About 16% of the 800 components are sourced here, while about 70% comes from South Korea, China and the U.S.

History is littered with well-meaning products that fell short. Initially conceived in 2006 as a personal computer, this one morphed into a tablet after repeated delays and coordination problems. Two years ago, DataWind showed off a $10 version that was dismissed as little more than a storage device.

Officials hope the new device will become cheaper and more powerful over time.

"My target audience is the 1 billion Indians who don't use the Internet," Tuli said. "People say, 'Computers for rickshaw wallahs, you must be crazy.' You watch!"

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma in The Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.

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