In­dia’s su­per af­ford­able tablet PCs:

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS & PERSONAL FINANCE - By Erika Kinetz

In­spired by MIT’s $100 lap­top, coun­try con­tin­ues her­itage of in­ex­pen­sive tech with $35 de­vice

MUM­BAI, In­dia — It looks like an iPad, but it’s only 1/14th the cost.

In­dia has un­veiled the pro­to­type of a $35 ba­sic touch-screen tablet com­puter aimed at stu­dents, which it hopes to bring into pro­duc­tion by 2011.

If the govern­ment can find a man­u­fac­turer, the Linux op­er­at­ing sys­tem-based de­vice 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 PC can be used for func­tions such as word pro­cess­ing, web brows­ing and video­con­fer­enc­ing. It can also be pow­ered by so­lar en­ergy — im­por­tant for In­dia’s elec­tric­ity-starved hin­ter­lands — though that add-on 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 de­vice Thurs­day.

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 mul­ti­year 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 of­fer 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.

Mamta Varma, a min­istry spokes­woman, said in­tel­li­gent de­sign and the di­min­ish­ing costs of hard­ware make the price tag plau­si­ble. The tablet doesn’t have a hard drive, 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 made. 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 about $20.

“Depend­ing on the qual­ity of ma­te­rial they are us­ing, cer­tainly it’s plau­si­ble,” said Sarah Rot­man Epps, an an­a­lyst with 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 sub­si­dize 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 through the in­dus­try. “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 by the In­dian govern­ment, which also aims to bring broad­band con­nec­tiv­ity to In­dia’s 25,000 col­leges and 504 uni­ver­si­ties and make study ma­te­ri­als avail­able on­line. 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.

Kapil Sibal, head of In­dia’s Min­istry of Hu­man Re­source Devel­op­ment, showed off the ba­sic touch-screen tablet com­puter at its de­but in New Delhi this week. In­dia is hop­ing to bring the de­vice into pro­duc­tion by 2011.

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