NEW DELHI // Hoping to rival the cheapest computer in the market, India has now introduced the world's cheapest tablet.
A solar-powered, touch-screen computing device priced at 1,500 rupees (US$35; Dh128) was finally introduced into the Indian market this month after it was unveiled six months ago by Kapil Sibal, India's human resource development minister.
It is said to be the answer to $100 laptops developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Indian version was developed by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Sciences, considered the country's leading technology institutes. The device is being manufactured by an Indian IT company, HCL Technologies, with headquarters in the city of Noida.
Called Sakshat in Sanskrit, meaning personification, the tablet is aimed at college students.
When the device was unveiled six months ago, Mr Sibal said: "We have reached a [developmental] stage that today, the motherboard, its chip, the processing, connectivity, all of them cumulatively cost around $35, including memory, display, everything."
The Linux-based device, with an 18cm screen comes with an inbuilt keyboard, has Wi-Fi capabilities. It supports internet browsers, can read PDF documents and is supposed to support video conferencing.
The device has no internal hard disk and uses an external memory card similar to a camera or a mobile phone.
Mr Sibal had said when the device was unveiled the aim was to drop the price to $20 and ultimately to $10. The tablet will be available widely in the next few weeks.
Despite the tablet's price and features, some educators remain unsure about its value, given 80 per cent of the country's pupils live in rural areas and have little or no knowledge of how to use a computer.
"This is a technical challenge for students in the rural market who are still using chalk and slate," said Sanjib Kumar Acharya, a career guidance counsellor in Delhi.
"How many children even here know how to use an iPad, iPhone or a laptop? As a gadget, it is very useful but with this price tag, it remains to be seen if all the features that were promised will be delivered."
Mr Acharya said that while it was a "useful, novel feature for the education market in India", with the potential of benefiting thousands of college students, the government should focus on empowering rural students.
Previous attempts by private companies to introduce affordable laptops aimed at the rural market were snubbed by the government.
In 2006, the Indian human resources development ministry rejected the initiative of the US-based One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), saying India would develop its own $10 laptops.
Later, the ministry said the cost could possibly stand at $100, and work began on the Sakshat tablet in 2010.
OLPC is a US-based non-profit organisation whose hand cranked and battery-operated laptops have been endorsed by the United Nations Development Program.
When Satish Jha, the chairman of the One Laptop Per Child India Foundation, tried to introduce $100 laptops in India for elementary-level children in rural areas, Indian bureaucracy killed the initiative, he said.
Even though the state governments of Kerala, Manipur and Himachal Pradesh were willing to put in orders, their funding was limited. Mr Jha said at least 80 per cent of the money had to be provided by the central government and that it never came.
"Bureaucracy did not let OLPC come through," said Mr Jha.
The OLPC, developed in collaboration with scientists and companies such as Google and eBay, is available in more than 45 countries.
Although some Indian states such as Bihar have expressed renewed interest in the OLPC, Mr Jha said there remained a supply gap for more affordable devices.
"The Indian government has to make bigger investments if they want these kinds of toys," he said. "This device is designed for college students but what happens to students from a village? There is no competition between the two. You have to know what you want. India does not have the ability to choose technology well."
Mr Jha said the foundation assumed students were not computer literate and OLPC computers used a system that made it easier for children to use. For example, the basic system allowed users to learn alphabets in more than 50 languages.
"If you keep them [rural and urban poor] out of the system you will not find the next Einstein," said Mr Jha. "India is not utilising its potential."