Suneet Tuli, CEO of Datawind, maker of the world’s least expensive functional 7″ tablet computer, recently stopped by the offices of Quartz to show off the device. The Aakash 2, which we’ve covered at length, is the size of a Google Nexus 7 tablet and, surprisingly, almost as capable, despite costing just one fifth as much. (Datawind sells the tablets to the Indian government for around $40, and the government either gives them away or re-sells them to students for $20.)
“It’s a pretty stock, straightforward entry-level device,” Tuli said during our interview. “As far as the hardware goes, it’s nothing too extraordinary and it’s not intended to be. The key focus is breaking that price barrier.”
The Ubislate/Aakash 2 tablet has “snap-together” construction, says Tuli. With a minimum of effort, he popped off the back to show us just how straightforward the device’s innards are. Datawind manufactures its own LCD screens and touch panels in a fab in Montreal, using a process that cuts down the overall cost of the device significantly. (The company spends arond $2.50 making the display, versus buying a comparable one from China for $8.) The circuit board is made in China, however, and all the parts are sent to a manufacturing facility in India as a kit, where final assembly is done by hand.
Tuli told us that, despite a backlog of 4 million orders in India for his tablet, he believes that comparable devices will be selling in rich countries for less than $50 within a year, whether or not they’re offered by Datawind.
More excerpts from the transcript of our conversation:
“There are two versions [of the tablet]. The version for the Indian government has only wifi connectivity. We sell commercially both the one with wifi and the one that has the ability to take a SIM. The one we sell commercially can be used as a phone, or really intended for anytime-anywhere internet connectivity.”
“[The tablet is] 320 grams. [That's 11.3 ounces, or just slightly lighter than Google's Nexus 7 tablet, which weighs 12 ounces.] It has a microUSB port, an embedded mic, a headphone jack, a front VGA camera, and it’s an Android 4.0 device, so it runs Ice Cream Sandwich. It has a g-sensor in there [for detecting the tablet's orientation].”
“Having the SIM means I’m not limited to a wifi hotspot. I can be in a New York taxi and I can connect, which is important.”
“It has standard Android apps. In the Indian environment we bundle in education apps. That’s a big segment for us. So this is something called a CBSE [Central Board of Secondary Education] curriculum… and we partner with a company called Mango Learning to put out applications. We put some ebooks on there, and other apps.”
“The Indian government is first putting out [this tablet] to colleges and universities. [...] This may not be the perfect initial deployment, but the vision isn’t just for engineering students, the vision is from engineering students all the way down to all 220 million students, or potentially 360 million Indian kids across the country that should be in school.” 140 million kids in India do not attend school, Tuli noted earlier.