Suneet Singh Tuli shies away from acknowledging that the Aakash projects have not been profitable for Datawind , a company he founded and which received the first contract from the Indian government to supply one lakh low-cost Aakash 1 tablets to students nearly two years ago.
But he has a reason to be coy: Tuli is now bidding for Aakash 4, a project that aims to take cheap tablets beyond schools into the hands of various central and state government departments.
Tuli says that, once the tendering process is over, it is likely the government will ask the bidders to match the lowest bid. At the moment, the Directorate General of Supplies and Disposals, part of the Department of Commerce, is accepting bids from interested companies. It is believed that companies such as Micromax, Acer, Intel, Microsoft, Simmtronics, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and HCL Infosystems have shown initial interest in Aakash 4.
Datawind, which has supplied about 12 lakh tablets in India (one lakh Aakash 2 and 3 devices and 11 lakh under its UbiSlate brand), is competing with other players in two areas: price and sourcing norms under the tendering process.
Tuli is confident his company can make tablets at the lowest rate. "Our product, with the same specifications, is almost 40 per cent cheaper than the next cheapest model in the market. Above all, we have the scale to produce as many tablets as the government wants," he says.
In order to promote local manufacturing, the government has mandated that 30 per cent components for Aakash 4 have to be sourced locally.
Tuli says while many of his competitors may find it difficult, he is comfortable with this clause. "We are already making some components (like touch screen) in India," he says, adding that his company is running neck-and-neck with Samsung and outsells Apple iPad every quarter. Of the estimated 50 lakh tablets sold in 2013, Datawind sold about 10 lakh units.
The Aakash 4 tablet has one gigahertz of RAM, Bluetooth, a dual-core processor and second-generation phone calling facility.
Analysts caution the device should not suffer the same fate as Aakash 1, which was scrapped a few months after its launch due to issues between the Indian Institute of Technology, Rajasthan, and Datawind over specifications.
For Aakash 4, the government has put out a pricing system under which rates are sought from manufacturers for different lot sizes over the next one year.
Tuli says a significant part of tablet components will be imported. "There are expectations that the rupee will depreciate [against the dollar] because the US economy is showing strong signs of revival," he says. "It would be difficult to deliver tablets at low prices in such a situation."