Techcrunch has gotten its hands on one of the long-awaited Aakash UbiSlate CI tablets, the famed “$35 tablet” that the Indian government plans to use to connect students all over the country to the Internet. The 7.5” tablet will have wifi in the basic version, with a $64 3G update that offers a $2 per month 2 GB cellular data package. It will reportedly soon be rolling out to universities around the country.
The article includes a brief video demo showing the tablet doing voice recognition (of the word “democracy”) and browsing Wikipedia, and discusses the benefits of cheap computers to education as demonstrated by projects like One Laptop Per Child. Other than that, it’s rather light on details about just how the tablet is going to be made available, how much the government is subsidizing them, how much they actually cost to make, and whether they’ll be made available outside of India.
A $35 tablet is great news for India, where the wage standard is so much lower that it’s more expensive there than it seems. But it would be even more impressive in the rest of the world, where the gold standard for cheap tablets, the Kindle Fire, come with more restrictions than you can shake a stick at. Even if they did like OLPC and charge twice the “standard” price, a $70 7” tablet good enough for an entire nation to use in education would probably draw a lot of business. (Actually, it’s not even really clear that the tablet is going to cost $35 in India when you get right down to it; a TechAdda piece suggests the price of the wifi version is 4,000 Rupees, or about $74, and the 3G version is 4,400 Rupees, or $81.)
But is such a thing even possible? Let’s face it, teardowns have suggested that the Fire, Nexus 7, and other such tablets are already being sold pretty close to the margin. And there’s a limit to how much price you can chop by skimping on components. No matter how you slice it, an LCD screen is expensive. (My day job involves customer service and tech support for a major brand of television, including ordering replacement parts, and it turns out that replacement LCD screens actually cost more than the brand new TV itself due to economies of scale. Make sure your kids use that Wii wrist strap, because if you break it you’ve bought it.)
If they actually are going to go for $35, surely the Indian government must be subsidizing those tablets. If they were offered for sale in the west, my guess is that they’d probably be about the same price as any of the scads of cheap Chinese Android tablets with similar capabilities.
On the other hand, new display technologies are coming along year by year. Sooner or later, we will see tablets start to get that cheap. Who knows what the e-reading world will look like by then?