Is the world's cheapest laptop a US$35 'flop'?
If Apple's iPad is on one end of the mobile computing cost spectrum at US$500-700 a pop, then India's ministry for Human Resource Development on Friday unveiled the other end: a touchscreen computing device that costs US$35, making it the world's cheapest laptop.
The unnamed product is only at the prototype stage of development at the moment, but is intended to be made available to 110 million Indian schoolchildren before anyone else. The tablet has no hard drive but does have a USB port, 2GB of memory, word processing, web browsing and video-conferencing functions.
"The price of the device exhibited today is expected to be around US$35 per piece, gradually dropping down to US$20 and ultimately to US$10 a piece," reads the government's official press release.
It all sounds very impressive. But already problems are popping up and critics are emerging. If the government is to hit its promised delivery date of 2011 it needs to find a manufacturer. But right now the corporates aren't biting. "The ministry started its efforts subsequent to lukewarm response from known corporates in this sector," said the release. Eventually the tablet was developed by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru.
Kapil Sibal, the country's human resource development minister, proudly believes that "the solutions for tomorrow will emerge from India." But responses from local techies suggest they think it's time for a reality check.
Prasanto K Roy, chief editor of CyberMedia's ICT group, in this morning's Economic Times likens this latest announcement to other "flops and failures" of the past: "Remember the Rs 10,000 personal computer, the Simputer, the US$100 laptop from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the NetPCs from a host of companies and India's so-called $10 laptop?"
Roy makes three pertinent points:
- "You don't show prototypes unless they are working ones with running apps, backed by a clear game plan to build up a vendor and apps network, and a clear design and specifications -- and, preferably, a bill of materials... You don't launch products until you have a product to launch. Else it's vapourware. The Indian government is building up a good track record of vapourware, from US$10 laptops upward. Apple, in sharp contrast, for instance, launches with a million units ready to sell, and midnight queues outside."
- "You also don't re-invent the wheel. We already have US$35 computing devices. We call them mobile phones. They're capable, connected, always on, personal, and every second Indian has one... It may make more sense for India to negotiate a rock-bottom price for 10 million of last year's laptops, and subsidize them down to $35."
- "Over the years, I've been less blunt about cheap-PC efforts," writes Roy. "But now I am angry. The government is wasting its efforts, my tax money and making a laughing stock of the Indian technological prowess."