How a $20 tablet from India could blindside PC makers, educate billions and transform computing as we know it

We’re speaking over the same overtaxed cellular networks that he hopes will enable Datawind to educate every schoolchild in India through the world’s cheapest functional tablet computer. But it’s a losing battle, as his connection to one of the 13 separate cell carriers in Mumbai buckles under too much competing traffic. He has to repeat himself when he tells me the ultimate price university students will pay for his tablet, after half its cost has been subsidized by the Indian government.

It’s $20.

In India, that’s a quarter the cost of competing tablets with identical specifications. Similar tablets in China, the world champion in low-cost components and manufacturing, go for $45 and up, wholesale. Which means the Aakash 2 isn’t just the cheapest fully functional tablet PC on the planet because the Indian government has decided it should be—it’s the cheapest, period.

In the developing world, and especially in India, a country where one billion people have a monthly income less than $200, every rupee matters. Aakash means “blue sky” in Hindi, and that’s a fair description of Datawind’s goals for the tablet. Ultimately, says Tuli, the government would like to distribute one to each of India’s 220 million students. India has 900 million cell phone subscriptions, but in a country where smartphones are rare, 95% of Indians have no computing device. Which means the Aakash, or something like it, could become the sole computer for hundreds of millions of people in India, not to mention elsewhere in the developing world.

Unlike the failed Aakash 1, which was supposed to roll out in 2011 but which was so under-powered that it was virtually unusable, the Aakash 2 is no toy. Even jaded US gadget reviewers have found it as usable as tablets costing many times more. It has a processor as powerful as the first iPad and twice as much RAM memory. It uses Google’s Android operating system, which now runs on three out of four smartphones and four out of 10 tablets shipped worldwide. Its LCD touchscreen displays full-screen video without hiccups, it browses the web, and it even holds up when playing videogames. If you’re a student with no other computing device, attaching a keyboard to it transforms it into a serviceable replacement for a traditional PC.

Ubislate is the commercially-available version of the Aakash 2 tablet

Disrupting the world’s largest tech companies

“The revolution will come from the developing world to the US,” says Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneur and academic. “These tablets will kill the markets for high-end players—for Microsoft in particular.”

Wadhwa knows Tuli and has become the Aakash 2′s champion stateside, writing about the device and getting it into the hands of executives. He believes that the $40 price of the tablet could drop to $25 within a year. “I showed a Google executive [this] tablet. He suddenly realized that his $99 tablet isn’t going to stand up to the $25 tablet from India.”

Many in Silicon Valley are suddenly fixated on cheap tablets. “I see a lot of the PC makers and hardware companies here [in the US] are going to build a tablet strategy,” says Jay Goldberg, a financial analyst who was surprised to discover on his last trip to China just how cheap functional 7″ tablets have become. “But if there are already $45 tablets out there, even that second-tier strategy [of replacing lost PC sales with tablets] is going to fail.”

Everyone I interviewed for this piece thought that Apple, as a company that differentiates itself by being a high-end brand, would survive the coming of cheap tablets. But Goldberg and Wadhwa agreed that other manufacturers of Android-based tablets, even Samsung, would have a hard time staying in the hardware market.



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