India’s tablet revolution will change the world sooner than you think

September 27, 2013
September 27, 2013

This originally appeared on LinkedIn. You can follow Vivek Wadhwa here

I wrote this article for Times of India. It is India-focused, but the same lessons apply everywhere. Cheap tablets, connectivity, and social media have already fomented revolutions in Middle East. They are causing China to have a harder time controlling its restive population and allowing the world’s children to rise above the fears and biases of their parents. They will open up new technology possibilities and shake up industries—even in the developed world. Wait and see how innovation from the East soon reaches the West.

Watching the news from India, one could easily conclude that the country has become more corrupt and its men have become more violent. Sadly, corruption and abuse of women aren’t new to India. Corruption is a legacy of the British Raj. Women all over the world are abused. What has changed is the ability of India’s normally docile middle-class and its youth to speak up and demand change. That is what technology has made possible.

The technologies that allowed people to shame the government were cell phones, TV and social media. There is much more to come.

As the poor gain access to the internet through smartphones and tablets and the middle-class gets better connectivity, the country will witness nothing less than a revolution in commerce, education and social values.

Imagine villagers recording videos of bribe takers and uploading these to sites such as Ipaidabribe.com and documenting the abuses they suffer at the hands of the police. Or students recording the attendance of teachers—who don’t show up for work—on public websites. Or direct payments of subsidies and social benefits to the poor via PayPal-style banking accounts, thereby cutting out corrupt government officials.

All of this is going to become possible within the next two to three years as the cost of tablet computers drops to the Rs 1,500 ($25) level and internet access becomes cheaper and more widely available. (In India, cell and mobile data plans cost less than 1/10 as in the US—they are affordable by the masses.)

The Indian government inadvertently triggered this tablet computing revolution by sanctioning the Aakash tablet. It only ordered 100,000 units and spent less than it would have on a junket of ministers going abroad. But this project got so much attention that it ended up lowering the expected base price of tablet technologies from the $400-$500 that is common in the West to $35-$50. This would not have happened on its own. Note the price of the Apple iPhone 5S. The cheapest models cost over $500 without a contract.

The Aakash tablet has been mired in Indian politics but is achieving big success in its new incarnations. The manufacturer, Datawind, has become a leading tablet supplier in India and abroad. These have also been tested in American schools by disadvantaged communities and were proved to be viable. Americans can’t wait for these tablets to become available to them.

The uses of tablet technology will go far beyond giving the poor a voice. As India gets connected by fiber optic cable and mobile carriers expand data coverage, cheap tablets will find thousands of new uses.

To start with, these will trigger an e-commerce revolution that will make the US dotcom boom look lame. Companies such as GoVasool.com will become India’s Amazon.com and there will be many of them. Apps such as LocalCircles.com will connect neighborhoods and communities all over India, providing them with a way of solving common problems.

There will be a revolution in education as courseware from all over the world becomes available to the poorest of the poor, new apps are developed that teach specific skills, and children all over India start connecting—and learning—from each other. Technology will make it possible for any poor child to gain the same knowledge as the privileged anywhere in India and across the world.

There will also be rapid changes in the media and entertainment industries as tablet devices become ubiquitous. Note how the media industry has changed in the US—from print to online. The same will likely happen in India.

Cheap tablets connected to cheap sensors also open up opportunities to revolutionize health care and farming. And there will be apps for practically every task that requires the management of information. Imagine the neighborhood fruit-seller emailing his customers photographs of his produce and accepting orders over the internet. Or booking rickshaws via apps like the US-based Uber which does taxi rides. I won’t be surprised if the poor figure out better uses of the technology than the rich do.

All of this seems like wishful thinking, but note how mobile phone usage grew exponentially in India— going from zero to 900 million devices within a decade. Tablets and internet usage will grow even faster and will have an even greater impact.

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