India’s digital divide

Will a US$35 ‘tablet for the poor’ bring computing power to the masses? Not likely, writes Asia Sentinel’s Cyril Pereira

The Minister for Communication & Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, announced with much pomp on 5th October, the breakthrough pricing of a tablet computer at US$35 for “millions of India’s schoolchildren” to become digitally connected and benefit from online education. Kapil Sibal, also the Human Resources Development Minister, scored on both counts politically for national and international media coverage.

An earlier ‘US$100 laptop’ computer ambition failed to materialize.

The ‘Aakash’, manufactured in Hyderabad, is a 7-inch tablet with 800 x 480 resolution, running the Android 2.2 operating system. It comes with 256Mb of RAM, a 32Gb expandable memory slot and two USB ports. It will be pre-loaded with internet browsers, PDF reader, video conferencing, media player, open office, microphone, stereo headset and multimedia content viewer. The project is aimed at 25,000 colleges and 400 universities.

India Supercheap Computer

Indian students pose with the supercheap 'Aakash' Tablet computers which they received during its launch in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011. Pic: AP.

The government-procured version incurs no duty and is subsidized. It will have no inbuilt cellular modem or SIM card for GSM through Telcos. The commercial version which will have both and pay all taxes, will retail at US$60.

Like the other famous Indian attempt at pricing for the poor, the Nano car from Tata touted as the “car for the masses” at US$2,000 per unit, the tablet to enable the rural poor to join the ranks of the digitally connected looks destined for a reality-crash.

The Nano had an alarming tendency to burst into flames. It also carried the stigma of being labeled ‘cheap’ and targeted at the ‘have-nots’, which steered the middle classes away from acquiring a Nano. The brand positioning tainted its appeal and the spontaneous combustion of early Nanos sealed its fate.