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India gets world's cheapest tablet: genius, or scam?

India gets world's cheapest tablet: genius, or scam?

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DELHI -- Millions of Indians are buying "Akaash," a tablet that costs $35 to $57. But critics say the ultra-low cost device is still half-baked. Is something better than nothing?

DELHI -- More than a million Indians are waiting for their order of the cheapest tablet in the world called Aakash, which means sky. It costs Rs. 2500 or approximately $47. The government will subsidize it for students who can get it for $35. The goal is to reach 220 million school and college students--genius or scam? or bit of both?

The success of the device, made by Datawind Inc., a Montreal-based tech company, could  revolutionize the target audience for the makers of this technology. While Apple and Samsung serve higher-income groups, Suneet Singh Tuli, the CEO of Datawind, sees customers in the billions who cannot afford an iPAD.

"Our goal was to break the price barrier for computing and internet access," Tuli, an Indian immigrant in Canada, said at the launch of Aakash in late 2011. "This is not only a concept that applies to India, but has ignited the imaginations of governments around the world."

The tablet was created in response to the Indian government's challenge of creating an ultra-low cost device. But there is a big IF to whether this Android 2.2 powered, 7-inch touch screen tablet actually takes off. It runs on a 366 Mhz processor, with 256 MB of memory , a 2100 mAh battery, two USB sockets, a micro SD slot with a 2 GB Micro SD card, and has WiFi access. It includes Facebook, YouTube and games apps.

Experts are seriously underwhelmed by Aakash's design and content. Students, who used the first batch, complained of poor battery life of less than three hours, an unresponsive screen, absence of useful apps, less storage space and a slow processor. The storm of criticism forced Datawind to improve Aakash and make it available at the same cost.

The critic

Prasanto Roy, head of several IT and telecom publications at Cybermedia, is doubtful whether Datawind can significantly improve Aakash. "It will have to be dramatically and overwhelmingly better," he said. "These things don't happen overnight."

The tech-writer also pointed out that it's not easy develop a commercially viable low-cost tablet and even the high-end market, dominated by Apple's ipad, is hard to crack.  Still, even the harshest critics admit that $35 is indeed low.

So the debate comes down to this-- is a half-baked model good enough for millions of people who have no access to similar technology or the internet. Or should Indians--especially students-- be getting a better device?

Roy argued that the something better than nothing position "doesn't hold water when something is below minimum threshold."

Despite the lukewarm to bad reviews, many people are willing to give the device a shot. The comments sections on the web, for instance, are filled with the sentiment of quit being so negative and lets try it. According to Datawind, which is SOLD OUT, analysts had calculated 250,000 tablet computers for the Indian market in 2012 but the orders have exceeded over two million. The company has established two more manufacturing units in India to meet the demand.

Roy, however, says that product will no-doubt sell (especially since it has government support) but the real test is in its utility. "I would buy it at a local department store out of the sheer curiosity factor," he said. "But is it a useful alternative to other commercial products?"

The customer

Babloo, my friend, thinks it does have commercial value.  He has placed an order for the upgraded version of the Aakash tablet called  UbiSlate 7+, which will cost him Rs.2999 or approximately $57.  The Android 2.3 powered Akaash+ has a 700 Mhz processor, a 3200 mAh battery, USB drives, WiFi and a SIM card slot for GPRS connectivity.

The upgraded model isn't out in the market. Roy, however, doesn't think it will be a big improvement on Akaash. But this is Babloo's only option since he can't afford a laptop, which will cost at least Rs. 10,000 ($190). An iPad2 starts at $499.

Babloo used to work in a photo-studio in a village close to Azamgarh, which is a far off town in the state of Uttar Pradesh.  After finishing college, he now does odd-jobs in a Delhi office. The 22-year-old recently taught himself how to use the computer and the internet. "It changed my life," he said. While he sometimes gets to browse the net in office, Babloo wants something of his own. "I can come home and use it or use it when I travel," he said.

Roy thinks that folks like Babloo could go for the smartphones now available for about Rs.9000 ($172). But Babloo says that a phone and Aakash are not comparable. For instance, the tablet screen is 7'' and it comes with the facility of attaching a keyboard to make it work like a laptop. "There is a difference between any kind of mobile device and a laptop," he said. "Especially for someone who has never had a computer."

Access in villages

People in Babloo's village don't have PCs in their homes.Some have seen old models of computers in printing shops of nearby urban towns or when students studying in the city sometimes bring back laptops.

If Akaash Tablet comes to the rural hinterlands, Babloo is convinced that young people will be crazy about it. "If they can use cell phones then why not these gadgets," he reasoned. Babloo also pointed out that the West had to develop gradually from the big PCs to the tablet, but Indians would start with modern technology.

Ibrahim Ahmad, editor of the Business Magazines Group at Cybermedia, isn't bowled over by the tablet but he still thinks it could spread like wildfire. "It has the potential of exploding like the mobile phone," he said. India has about 121 million internet users, which is a small figure in a country of 1.2 billion people. But there are about 900 million mobile subscriptions in India. Mobile phone use, however, is also increasing internet access.

As we discuss Akaash's future, Ahmad lists several obstacles including the lack of distribution, manufacturing and support facilities. For instance, how does a student in a remote village get customer service if her tablet konks off. Following mounting complaints about non-response to calls and emails, Datawind recently had to put up a "patience requested" note on its website. Then there is competition from Chinese manufacturers who are also producing low-cost tablets. This one on ebay is for $42.

Roy, however, doesn't see the Chinese competition as the real problem especially since the Indian government is hugely subsidizing Akaash. "Yes, any tech product India can do for $60, the Chinese can do cheaper," he said. "Whether at $40 or $60, these cheap tablets will not be able to come up to the minimum threshold of usability required for the classroom."

Scam?

Rumors of a scam have also touched this whole inexpensive table quest. Is the Indian government and Datawind, which worked in collaboration with the reputed Indian Institute of Technology Rajasthan, pulling the wool? Could better planning have led to a better device?  "I would not be surprised if there is a scam but its too early to say," said Ahmad. "But if they're agenda is to be introducing technology to the masses than that's what they're doing."

Those students who can't buy one will be able to rent it from college libraries, according to latest reports. Roy contends that Facebook or Youtube apps will not help students who will be in a traditional classroom setting. A better idea, according to him, was for the government to have subsidized something like a Kindle e-book reader. "They could put every possible book onto it--the content is all ready and waiting," he said. "The battery life is great."

Babloo, however, wants his tablet for reading news, tracking jobs as well as enjoying music and movies. For instance, he said, one can check the rate of a dollar or euro against a rupee. "So one doesn't get cheated," he explained. "Knowledge is power."

Photo--1) Reuters/Google images 2) newsbeats.in/Google images 3) prlog.org/Google images

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Betwa Sharma

Correspondent

Betwa Sharma has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, AOL News, GlobalPost, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Tribune. She previously worked as the United Nations/New York correspondent for the Press Trust of India, the country's largest newswire. She holds degrees from the National Law Institute University in India, Cambridge University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in Delhi, India. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure