Last October, the government of India announced plans to supply the world’s cheapest tablet computer, in conjunction with Datawind, an obscure Canadian company. After purchasing the Android-powered devices for less than US$50 each from the web-services developer, the government would then sell them to Indian students for just $35 each. It was an ambitious attempt to ultimately connect hundreds of millions of people to the Internet, improving their education and employment prospects.
But the project was beset with delays, squabbling and a wave of bad press. Reviewers savaged the tablet, dubbed the Aakash, for being too slow, unresponsive and barely functional. Forbes India wrote it off as “disastrous” less than a year after its debut. Only 8,000 of the 100,000 tablets contracted shipped.
“It’s an uphill battle for us,” says Suneet Tuli, Datawind’s co-founder and CEO, from his home in Brampton, Ont. Tuli says negative press was misguided, since reviews compared the Aakash to the iPad—two products designed for completely different markets. “We’re out to create a product for someone whose monthly income is between $100 and $150,” he says.
But now the company is trying again. This month, it will launch the Aakash 2 at $41 to fulfil its contract. The new tablet is faster, more powerful and features a more responsive touch screen. Subsidies will still reduce the price to $35 for students.
Another reason for the Aakash’s lacklustre debut has also been remedied. Datawind’s development partner, the Indian Institute of Technology in Rajasthan, insisted on upgraded performance specs partway through the project that couldn’t be met without raising the price. Datawind is now working with IIT Bombay.
The Aakash 2 still has to face the Indian media, but it may be granted a reprieve. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford University with no formal connection to Datawind, was intrigued by the Aakash when he heard about it last year. Though underwhelmed by the first device, he says the new version is greatly improved and wants to see it succeed. To head off potential criticism, Wadhwa secured a few tablets to send to tech writers in the U.S. A handful of media outlets wrote largely positive reviews in September. “In India, what they read in the West carries more weight than what they read locally,” Wadhwa says. “It will be very hard for them to trash [the Aakash] after they have western media raving about it.”
Datawind has plans beyond its contract with the government, and began selling a retail version of the Aakash for $65 last month. Tuli won’t say how many have shipped, though he insists the response is overwhelming. So too is the competition. A number of Indian mobile phone providers are pushing their own cheap tablets, but have yet to meet the Aakash on price. And in a developing nation where only 10% of the population has access to the Internet, price is important. “If you can break the affordability barrier,” Tuli says, “this is the biggest opportunity there ever was.”