By Nidhi Subbaraman
More than 6 billion people in the world have cell phones of some kind. But only a quarter of the developing world has access to the Internet.
Suneet Singh Tuli, the CEO of DataWind, believes that the super-cheap Aakash tablet (called the Ubislate 7ci) will give low-income Indians, and low-income earners in other developing countries, a shot at connectivity--fruit vendors and rickshaw drivers who can't or won't buy a computer, much less a third-screen iPad.
“We are used to new tablets that break some performance barrier,” Tuli tells Fast Company. The question DataWind goes after is this one: “What is the right set of specs for the entry level consumer, and what is the lowest price [it can sell at].”
Tuli stopped by the Fast Company offices with the latest version of DataWind's ultra-cheap tablet. It has the basic functionality of a smartphone, Wi-Fi connectivity, rear- and front-facing cameras, and a micro-USB port (!). The parts are assembled in China and India (a sort of nebulous supply chain). It runs Android 4, like many high-end smartphones, but Tuli plans to sell the tablet at a fraction of what many of those cost.
The Indian government has put in a bulk order for the device at $40, and then the plan is to offer it to students at $20. But beyond the educational market, Tuli believes there is a deep need for connectivity in India that his extremely cheap tablet will fill.
He has a point. World-wide, cellphone penetration is booming but Internet access lags by about 4 billion. "That gap is not because of connectivity or access—they’re using mobile phones, they have some way of charging those things. That gap is affordability. Killing the affordability gap is going to bring on the next 2 or 3 billion people." Tuli sees his tablets becoming as prolific as calculators once they catch on. Because of duties and taxes the tablet will almost certainly cost more when it is commercially sold. Though, Tuli hopes that if DataWind can bring the price down to a certain point, the government will waive some taxes altogether.
As an example, DataWind asked students at IIT Kanpur to build a series of test apps that could potentially work in such situations. Tuli says the “winner” was an app that allowed the fruit vendor to keep a track of his inventory, and customers, and record how much he was earning and spending.
It's not just the developing world. In places like the U.S. and Canada, Suneet Singh Tuli believes DataWind could be the Walmart of tablets, filling a need in households that want a spare Internet device without splurging on a smartphone or a new computer.
Tuli makes a good case for his budget device, but how quickly he will be able to make it available to students, much less put it on for sale to the rest of us, remains to be seen. The company's top priority for now is filling the Indian government's order of 100,000 . That’s a target Tuli is not sure they'll hit in time, but that won’t stand in the way of the project going forward, he says.