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A tab worth picking up

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: Jan 8, 2012

Sumeet Singh Tuli's enthusiasm is infectious. The Chief Executive Officer of the UK-based company DataWind, which manufactures the low-cost Aakash tablet for the Ministry of Human Resource Development, is adamant that the $35 tablet does not compromise on performance. In fact, he says, he is all set to launch a $50 commercial version. Unlike its cheaper counterpart, which uses only Wi-Fi for network access, the commercial tablet will use mobile networks.

"You have seen what mobile phones have done for India," says Tuli. "Even a rickshaw driver can own one now. The ability to communicate with people has increased economic opportunities manifold. I believe that tablets will take this transformation to the next level."


Aakash may not be the perfect product, but it just might be the kick-start the industry needs


He says that as tablets become cheaper, people will use them for information and entertainment. This will create opportunities for online service providers and an ecosystem of application developers. Whether an under-powered tablet can make this happen can be debated. But consider 'Moore's Law', a postulate by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that has become a guiding principle of the technology age. It says the amount of transistor gates that can be placed cheaply on a silicon chip will double roughly every two years. Physical limitations may soon mean that this law will need to be modified, but it seems fair to assume that core processing power will continue to become cheaper. The processing power of a product like Aakash compares with that of a $1,000 personal computer a decade ago.


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Then there is the question of how much processing power is enough. Those who are used to the smooth, intuitive interface of an iPad may consider a cheap tablet under-powered . A simple test that many low-cost tablets have failed is whether one can play a game such as Angry Birds on them. Votaries of cheap tablets say the masses do not need Angry Birds, but perhaps this is a facile argument - tablets do need to be good entertainment devices to sell.

Many attempts to create low-cost computing products for India have failed. True, some were just plain bad, but the real reason they failed was that they did not achieve their ideal price points. Those that did had such poor performance that sales were abysmal.

Attempts to create networkbased computers sank without a trace, thanks to unaffordable Internet access plans. Tuli's company has therefore devised a lowdata browser that routes all traffic through servers that reduce the bandwidth needed to download a page. Similar solutions are being used by other tablet vendors.

Perhaps this is where Moore's Law will kick in - low-cost tablets with improved performance. Aakash may not be the perfect product, but it just might be the kick-start that the industry needs to create better low-cost products. This, and cheaper data access, will drive an information revolution in India. If there is a lesson computing can learn from the mobile phone industry, it is that lower call rates drove the development of cheaper handsets, and not the other way around.

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