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The $35 Tablet - too good to be true?

The Indian government’s recent announcement of its plan to produce a $35 tablet next year garnered global media coverage. What was more stupendous than the magnitude of the task (taking simple economics into account), was the media’s almost wholesale acceptance of this latest tech-pledge at face-value. After all, this isn’t the first time the Indian government has made such pledges. In early 2009 the Indian government unveiled plans to roll out a $20 laptop called Shaksat with 2GB of RAM, but like the $35 tablet, details of other components and specifications were hard to come by. As is the case with the tablet, the government planned to by-pass the open market and produce its own cheaper devices which would transform the Indian education system. It hasn’t happened. Even if the $35 tablet was produced at the lowest cost economically possible and with the most ‘intelligent design’ applied, the fact remains that India would still have to import the touch screens from China because they are not currently produced in India.

The Indian government’s recent announcement of its plan to produce a $35 tablet next year garnered global media coverage. What was more stupendous than the magnitude of the task (taking simple economics into account), was the media’s almost wholesale acceptance of this latest tech-pledge at face-value. After all, this isn’t the first time the Indian government has made such pledges. In early 2009 the Indian government unveiled plans to roll out a $20 laptop called Shaksat with 2GB of RAM, but like the $35 tablet, details of other components and specifications were hard to come by. As is the case with the tablet, the government planned to by-pass the open market and produce its own cheaper devices which would transform the Indian education system. It hasn’t happened.

Even if the $35 tablet was produced at the lowest cost economically possible and with the most ‘intelligent design’ applied, the fact remains that India would still have to import the touch screens from China because they are not currently produced in India. China has a system designed for low-cost manufacturing that, according to Mike Elgan of Computerworld, cannot currently be rivalled by India (which tellingly provides only 16% of its manufacturing workforce with in-service training compared to China’s 90%) "Country Strategy for India (CAS) 2009-2012" World Bank. www.ukibc.com/ukindia2/files/India60.pdf). India’s design and engineering expertise are not in question, nor its desire to produce its own version of OLPC’s $100 laptop. What is in question is the economic feasibility of such a plan when the bare facts dictate that even the solar panel equipped to charge a tablet is likely to cost more than $35 to produce if it can be produced at all in India at scale.

While the attention focused on low-cost devices does put increasing pressure on manufacturers, technologists and engineers to come up with more inventive ways to produce low-cost devices to scale, it can also obscure the more pressing issues which concern education systems, their outdated curriculums reinforced by rote learning, cramming, costly government run schools and under-resourced and poorly trained teachers. Would one tablet per-child in India of its own accord transform a monolithic, overburdened, didactic education system that has been in place for over 150 years?

We may find out if the $35 Tablet reaches production next year as promised. Home to the 100,000 rupee ($2,127) compact Nano car, the 749 rupees ($16) water purifier and the $2,000 open-heart surgery, India’s ability to challenge the skeptics is certainly on record as being more than an empty promise. Tablet or no tablet, such pledges whip up a media frenzy that strengthens India’s position as a technology hub, and that fact cannot be lost on a politic-smart government. In the meantime we may keep an eye on China......

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