Business Today

Aiming high, falling short

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: Nov 13, 2011

One thing can certainly be said about most of the low-cost tablets that have invaded the Indian market: they are slow. No, scratch that. Some are very slow. Angry Birds, developed by Finnish computer game developer Rovio Mobile, is hardly graphic-intensive, but when you try and play it on one of the lowcost tablets, the birds you fire from the catapult invariably jitter across the screen.

And it does not stop at just a game. A heavy website with embedded graphics and videos not only takes forever to load, it also renders poorly. Only a few online content publishers have created websites optimised for mobiles and tablets.

Someone recently said it is not fair to compare an Apple iPad to a low-cost tablet. After all, when you are paying a tenth of the cost, you should not expect the same standards. To use an automotive analogy, one should not expect a BMW for the price of a Tata Nano.

Kushan Mitra
Kushan Mitra
The trouble with a low-cost tablet as compared to a low-cost car is that while the latter can still perform its basic function - that of getting its user from point A to point B - the former has difficulty in performing one of its core tasks, which is to surf the Internet smoothly. It is not just the fact that the touch screen is slow and the performance is abysmal, some of the tablets just feel cheap.

Some of you may recall that in 2008/09, there was a rush of 'netbook' laptops. The sales of these smaller, lighter and significantly cheaper laptops went through the roof. Computer manufacturers told buyers they did not need extreme processing power. Eventually, 'vanity' netbooks also came along with higher performance and fancy features. Yet, the low-power, lowcost processor, which was at the heart of most netbooks, could not render a movie very well.

Then the iPad came along. It was even lighter and smaller than the netbook - and more expensive. But you could watch a movie on it and play some pretty snappy games, too. It could do everything a netbook could do.

Yes, there is a market for low-cost tablets and the 'law' formulated by Gordon Moore, founder of microprocessor manufacturer Intel, stating that processor power will double every 18 months while prices keep falling, still broadly holds true. Even the cheapest tablets today have more processing power than the average computer of a decade ago and, adjusting for inflation, they cost less than five per cent of what computers did 10 years back.

With processing power having improved, graphics are now 10 times richer and Net speeds 50 times higher. Can you imagine surfing on a 10-year-old computer? It goes without saying that it would be slow and you would feel very frustrated. On the information superhighway, the 'very slow' lane is not the one you want to be in. In some countries, there is a minimum speed limit on expressways.

Some low-cost cars would find it hard to touch those minimum speeds. Low-cost need not necessarily mean low value. There are some relatively cheap tablets that do not compromise on performance. They may not be as fast or as sexy as the iPad; they may also cost more than twice the cheapest tablets in the market. But they work. Yes, it is imperative to bridge the digital divide in India. The access to information can play a vital role in helping millions escape the clutches of poverty. But do not patronise them by giving them sub-standard goods. They deserve better.

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