The idea of a fully functional, Internet-connected tablet computer that sells for as little as $20 sounds way too good to be true. The Kindle Fire seemed pretty damn impressive when it came out and sold for $200, a price that everyone knew added up to Amazon losing money on each tablet sold. But a new tablet with comparable features that also runs on the Android operating system and sells for a tenth of the price—that’s just madness, right?
Wrong, says Datawind, the makers of the Aakash tablet. On Sunday, the company pulled back the curtain on its latest model, the Aakash 2. The new tablet is designed to be an affordable computer for the developing world, one that can transform how education works in countries like India, where it will be available first. (Does this model sound familiar? I’ll get to that in a second.) It comes with a 1GHZ Cortex-A8 processor, 512 MB of RAM, 4GB of flash storage, built-in WiFi, a front-facing camera and a whole lot of ambition.
Those are almost exactly the same specs as the first generation Kindle Fire. In fact, they’re a bit better, as the original Kindle Fire didn’t have a camera. Thanks to a government subsidy and an innovative manufacturing process, the price tag on the Aakash 2 is an astounding $21 for Indian students. The general public can pick up the commercial version of the tablet, the 3G-enabled Ubislate, for around $70.
Well if this isn’t madness, it certainly sounds too good to be true. Ultra-cheap tablets already exist in places like China, where they can be found in the $40 range, which is roughly the cost to manufacture the Aakash 2. The low cost comes from a combination of cheap manufacturing techniques and not having to pay taxes or shipping costs to get them from the assembly plant in Asia to the Western world.
Super-low cost manufacturing comes with tradeoffs, though. As the model name implies, this is the second round of Aakash tablets. The Indian government had ordered 4 million of the tablets at $35 a piece to be given to Indian students in lieu of textbooks, but the order never shipped. When the first Aakash tablets came off the assembly line, about a third of them wouldn’t turn on at all. Those that did work often froze or overheated quickly, and testers who opened them up to check on the hardware found that they were held together with electrical tape. This doesn’t sound like a world-changing piece of technology.
Then there’s the long shadow cast by the One Laptop Per Child program. Launched with much fanfare and support from big American tech companies like Google and eBay, the OLPC has been riddled with problems from the beginning. Like the Aakash, the program’s aim was to get computers into the hands of children in developing countries for the sake of education, and it was supposed to do it without breaking the bank of third world governments who would purchase them. As of this year, though, the laptops still cost $209, a sky-high cost when nearly half of the world’s population lives on $2 a day. The program was also widely criticized as being a top-down program, better designed to make rich American venture capitalists feel good about themselves than actually making a difference on the ground.
It’s hard to say whether or not the Aakash 2 can make this hyper cheap technology model work. Writing in Quarts, Christopher Mims is hopeful:
There are a number of reasons Aakash 2 could succeed where the original OLPC project failed. For one, Aakash is for the most part a home-grown solution to problems identified in advance by the Indian government, where the OLPC was initiated by western funders who lacked sufficient knowledge of local conditions and needs. At a price that never fell below $100, OLPC devices were also significantly more expensive than the Aakash 2, limiting its reach. And as a mature ecosystem, Android has many orders of magnitude more apps available for it than the OLPC could ever command–consumers are much more likely to embrace devices that can already run huge catalogs of videogames, media and other applications.
Also, they only cost $21! When the Indian government already spends $13 per student on textbooks, a piece of technology that cheap could have a tremendous impact. But there’s one simple reality: the Indian government’s plan is only going to work if the actual tablets work this time around.
So now we get to play wait-and-see. The first round of Aakash 2 tablets will be shipped to 100,000 students in India, and the government’s committed to buying 5.86 million more if all goes well. Datawinds also already has a backlog of four million orders for the commercial Ubislate model. And if that works, Datawinds is going to take the model international and could eventually come to the United States to compete with the Kindle Fire and the iPad. Long story short, we’re going to start seeing a lot more tablets. “[In the US,] you will see tablets everywhere,” says Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of academics and innovation at Singularity University. “They will become disposable, and you will see thousands of new applications within a short period of time.”
Image via Datawinds