10 reasons India’s $35 tablet is destined for failure

I am rather late in writing on the $35 tablet computer but that was a deliberate decision. I didn’t think there was anything positive to write about Aakash, claimed to be the “cheapest” touch-screen tablet PC in the world.

The Indian government, which commissioned the tablet’s development and manufacture, should have learnt from the performance of the world’s cheapest car – Tata’s Nano – that nobody wants. But, then, we expect too much from our elected leaders. As Apple’s Steve Jobs may have said, Aakash may simply be DOA – dead on arrival and here’s why.

#1. Aakash is not the cheapest tablet PC in the world. As Digit magazine points out, several nondescript manufacturers in Taiwan and China are selling tablets that are just as cheap, given the higher specifications of these models. For example, one with a faster processor than Aakash and a webcam sells for $39.71, which is cheaper even than the proposed price for the commercial version of Aakash, called UbiSlate.

India, Aakash

Indian students pose with the supercheap 'Aakash' Tablet computers which they received during its launch in New Delhi, India earlier this month. Pic: AP.

#2. Aakash is a Wi-Fi-only version, meaning only those at the elite educational institutions can use it. It should be obvious that students at institutions that have on-campus Wi-Fi don’t need a discount store product with sub-standard features.

#3. With a resistive touch screen, it would need a miracle for somebody to use it for any form of writing, even e-mail, especially with the lag likely from the slow 366 MHz processor. Consequently, the device could at best function as a browsing device.

#4. Aakash’s claimed battery life of three hours is a stretch, given it may have been achieved under unspecified test conditions. If manufacturers’ routine claims and lab tests are anything to go by, users will be lucky to get half that time, which would mean a mere 90 minutes.

#5. Just like the Nano failed because people count the costs of running a car, not just its cost, Aakash’s success will depend on how many can also afford the cost of Wi-Fi Internet service. DataWind, Aakash’s manufacturer, is offering unlimited mobile Internet service for a monthly fee of a mere $2 (Rs. 98) but only on its commercial version, not the subsidized version being sold to the government for distribution to students at unspecified educational institutions.

#6. DataWind, a firm with operations in the U.K., Canada and Australia, has previously only made wireless Internet access products. The firm was founded by and run by the brothers Raja Singh Tuli and Suneet Singh Tuli.

#7. Aakash has received a surprisingly fair review but that in itself hides a story. Few reviewers have had a good look at it, and nobody as far as I can tell has had a hands-on test of the tablet. Even Apple, when it released the first version of its iPad, gave the device to reputed reviewers such as Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal for an independent review. Digit, one of the leading computer magazines, had not got a unit for its review and only said this: “We hope to get our hands on the $35 gadget soon, we will reserve our final verdict for the detailed review.” Good luck, guys.

#8. For those touting Aakash as a means to better quality of education, here’s a thought even if it is a comment on school education. Mint columnist Anurag Behar, who oversees Azim Premji’s education program, wrote thus: “Across two continents, they (school officials) said the same thing – “not a dollar will we invest in ICT, every dollar that we have will go to teacher and school leader capacity building. Like us, through experience, they have learnt the limits of ICT.” You can read his full column here.

#9. For those who consider Aakash as a means to bridge the digital divide between rural and urban India, it should be obvious that college students are, by no stretch of imagination, the demographic that is most disenfranchised.

#10. Finally, even the Tamil Nadu government, which plans to hand out 6.8 million free laptops to poor school and college students in the state, is giving out computers with far superior specifications and features. It will be spending an estimated $1.5 billion, not a measly $5 million that the federal government is spending on the initial order of 100,000 tablets.

For the sake of the country, I hope Aakash will not go the way of the Nano, but am hard-pressed to understand how it can avoid the fate of the cheap car that even the poor don’t want.