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Indian Tablet Gets TV Demo But Is Still Hard to Believe

Indian tablet

If it's on TV, it must be true, right?

When India's plans for an ultra-cheap tablet PC, destined to transform education in the nation, surfaced several weeks back the entire world was skeptical. The authorities have just made another attempt to show off the product, and quell global accusations of disbelief. It hasn't worked.

Human Resource Development minister Kapil Sibal notes that Sibal promised to have one million of the devices in Indian colleges and universities by 2011 at that highly publicized $35 price, TechRadar reports. Sibal even underlined plans to bring the price down to $10 and noted that open-sourced education software has already been developed for the machine in India. Google and Microsoft are in a battle over whose software will run inside the diminutive slate, the report says, and the two news reporters who presented the piece couldn't "crash" the tablet, despite trying hard. The effort has "the potential to lower the prices of tablets globally," TechRadar claims.

The only issue the demonstrators apparently had with the unit was its poor-performing resistive touchscreen—no match for speedy capacitative screens found on the iPad and smartphones, which enables multi-touch tech at fast response speeds. But the resistive unit is probably a symptom of the low component costs that the device simply has to have if it's ever to achieve anything close to its target price.

Which we still think is impossible. The device has to have an LCD, touchscreen overlay, memory, CPU, Wi-Fi chipsets, 3G chipsets, motherboard, connectors, buttons, a battery, a physical shell and will also come with assembly and testing costs. Research and development costs would also technically be amortized across each unit's price, bumping the price slightly. Even assuming the Indian government could source the machine's component parts super-cheaply from the same Chinese fab plants as every one else in the world does (possibly undercutting the price of everyone else—though it's unclear how) they would almost certainly have to be older chipsets—else the chip manufacturers wouldn't make a profit, or risk losing their income as other makers would also demand lower pricing. When you realize this, it's then plausible that the resulting device would perform so poorly under load that it would obviate any of the higher-end interactivity that could really bring a boost to education.

Meanwhile, the government has already subsidized the price of the device down to $35, and it's only through further subsidy that the price will fall further. In that regard, the machine never was a "$35 tablet," it's just an exercise in awkward PR and bloody-mindedness that absolutely won't change global tablet pricing. And the Indian government may well have been better off paying an established manufacturer—perhaps a Chinese smartphone manufacturer like HTC, or even Foxconn, which already has plants in India—to build a custom-specced low-end tablet. This would've brought the advantages of an established expertise in building quality, reliable hardware, with excellent troubleshooting systems already in place, and all sorts of economies of scale at a production line level. No element of this alternative plan would've precluded the government from sourcing its own software for the device, or of subsidizing the price. And any product may well have already rolled off the production line into the (presumably) eager hands of India's student population, ready to transform their educational experience today, rather than a notional date next year.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.