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India unveils prototype of $35 tablet computer

India's Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal displays a low-cost tablet at its launch in New Delhi, India. (AP)
India's Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal displays a low-cost tablet at its launch in New Delhi, India. (AP)

It looks like an iPad, only it’s one-fourteenth the cost: India has unveiled the prototype of a $35 basic touch-screen tablet aimed at students, which it hopes to bring into production by 2011.

If the government can find a manufacturer, the Linux operating system-based computer would be the latest in a string of “world’s cheapest” innovations to hit the market out of India, which is home to the 100,000-rupee ($2,127) compact Nano car, the 749-rupee ($16) water purifier, and the $2,000 open-heart surgery.

The tablet can be used for functions like word processing, web browsing, and video conferencing. It has a solar-power option, too—important for India’s energy-starved hinterlands—although that add-on feature costs extra.

“This is our answer to MIT’s $100 computer,” Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal told the Economic Times when he unveiled the education technology device on July 22.

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte—co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab—unveiled a prototype of a $100 laptop for children in the developing world. India rejected that as too expensive and embarked on a multi-year effort to develop a cheaper option of its own.

Negroponte’s laptop ended up costing about $200, but in May his nonprofit association, One Laptop Per Child, said it plans to launch a basic tablet computer for $99.

Sibal turned to students and professors at India’s elite technical universities to develop the $35 tablet after receiving a “lukewarm” response from private-sector players. He hopes to get the cost down to $10 eventually.

Critics pointed out that the tablet’s cost largely depends on companies actually being able to manufacture at the $35 price point.

Christopher Dawson, an education blogger for ZDNet, discussed the tablet in a July 23 post, and he posted a follow-up entry on July 26 in which he wondered exactly how India would achieve that $35 price tag.

“The prototype only lays out the specifications for the tablet, but [its] cost estimates rely on predictions of massive economies of scale and local government large-scale purchases,” he wrote.

Dawson noted that “devices like these have the potential to leverage extraordinary advances in cloud computing and be part of both modern, connected classrooms as well as bridging the digital divide.” He pointed out, however, that many schools—in the U.S. and across the globe—are still struggling with connectivity and might not be ready for devices such as this.

Mamta Varma, a ministry spokeswoman, said falling hardware costs and intelligent design make the price tag plausible. The tablet doesn’t have a hard disk, but instead uses a memory card, much like a mobile phone. The tablet design cuts hardware costs, and the use of open-source software also adds to savings, she said.

Varma said several global manufacturers, including at least one from Taiwan, have shown interest in making the low-cost device, but no manufacturing or distribution deals have been finalized. She declined to name any of the companies.

India plans to subsidize the cost of the tablet for its students, bringing the purchase price down to around $20.

“Depending on the quality of material they are using, certainly it’s plausible,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research. “The question is, is it good enough for students?”

Profitability is also a question for the $35 machine.

Epps said government subsidies or dual marketing—where higher-priced sales in the developed world are used to subsidy low-cost sales in markets like India—could convince a manufacturer to come on board.

This and similar efforts—like the Kakai Kno and the Entourage Edge tablets—show that there is global demand for an affordable device to trim high textbook costs, she said.

If it works, Epps predicts the device could send a shiver of cost-consciousness throughout the industry—much as Negroponte’s plans helped spur the creation of devices like Intel’s low-cost Classmate PC.

“It puts pressure on all device manufacturers to keep costs down and innovate,” she said.

The project is part of an ambitious education technology initiative that also aims to bring broadband connectivity to India’s 25,000 colleges and 504 universities and make study materials available online.

So far, nearly 8,500 colleges have been connected, and nearly 500 web and video-based courses have been uploaded on YouTube and other portals, the Ministry said.

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