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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.

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  • Pushan Banerjee

    Kit, I find this article discriminatory. When Negroponte started the OLPC project, there were only kudos. They planned to sell 1 million laptops by 2011 which never happened. SO was that a failure?

    Now that a supposed 'third world country' (yes, America still sees India as one) promises so much, you dismiss it as if you are the worlds' best technologist. All on the basis of one failure.

    So what is the basis of your argument. That India cannot source and build it's own tablet and that the components will be of low grading.

    Here's my argument. The cheapest desktop costs $200 in India, with great hardware, and the cheapest laptop costs $400. Both are built by INDIAN companies, and both are quite robust and work well. I don't see why the Indian government can't subsidize the cost and bring it down to $ 35 just to give education a boost in India.

    An article like this comes across exactly as it should: Of a country slowly losing superpower status, of a people losing jobs to competition, and of technologists losing the technology race, trying to slur others who are getting better than them.

    I suggest you research some more on the Indian market before writing such drivel. I am an avid reader of Fast Company, but articles such as these will do no good to your neutral reputation

  • John

    Kit, I guess you are under the expression that only America can lead the technology revolution. Come on, wake up!!!! When some 3rd world country does something extraordinary, you guys are just skeptic about it.

    This blog should be called SLOW COMPANY. you guys can't seem to get what shift is taking place in the technological world

  • Charbax

    I believe the Indian Government saw my video with a Bangalor company at FTF which gave them the idea to announce the $35 tablet:

    The price is for real. It of course depends on orders of millions to reach that target pricing. But even for $50 or even $80 per tablet, for sure you can be sure it can be done. And that is still 6 times cheaper than the iPad at the least.

    The question is, what should be the minimum specs that they should target to make a product that can actually and really be used for education. I think OLPC is doing the right thing and has always done the right thing ion terms of hardware:

    1. OLPC XO-3 has a Pixel Qi screen, which is absolutely mandatory for reading and for good battery runtime, you can't have millions of poor Indians recharging their tablets 3 times a day when they might not even have power. Using a Pixel Qi screen means the battery runs 10 times longer, because the backlight is by far the component that uses the most power in an ARM powered tablet. That Pixel Qi screen is also targetted to be based on unbreakable plastic instead of glass. Unbreakability is very important as this device costs the same as 3 months salary for some of the families that are targeted.

    2. The OLPC XO-3 Tablet has a 4x faster ARM Processor, ARMv7 class. Which I think may be minimum requirement for a good web browsing experience and for a good experience with apps. Even for children who might have never seen a computer before, I think it might just make perfect sense to get at least ARM Cortex A8 or ARMv7 class processor and not only an ARM9 like is in this initial Indian project.

    3. OLPC also uses WiFi mesh networks which are absolutely important so all kids in a huge school can all share one or few hotspots reliably and even more important so children can collaborate and share files and documents even without any working Internet access. Building up a WiFi network with centralised routers all over the place costs 10x more than a solution that involves WiFi Mesh networking. It has to be integrated in the hardware so WiFi mesh can stay on at all times with very little power, weeks of standby, and even wake the device up on incoming calls, just like a mobile phone.

    There you have it. No matter what, the sub-$100 tablet exists and is demonstrated by Chinese and Taiwanese vendors all over the place, just look up Tablet videos on my site. The fact is iPad is hugely over priced.

  • ham ham

    Kit, you are asking the wrong question. What you should worry about is when the US crumbles under the 200 trillion undeclared debt in a decade and the Chinese sink a US aircraft carrier(like the N.Korea did to South) and the US economy in a state more like that of Argentina and Britain already a client state of India, where you will be. Probably you will be applying for an Indian visa to get a job and a living. You have no idea of the technology shift that is taking place. This is not the American century.