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Humble tablet, sky-high goals

Forbes magazine included Suneet Singh Tuli, the maker of India's low-cost tablet 'Aakash', and MIT professor Anant Agarwal in its 'Impact 15' list of education innovators who are harnessing technologies to reinvent education globally, Vivek Sinha reports.

gadgets Updated: Nov 10, 2012 08:55 IST
Vivek Sinha

If the rich can have their iPads, the humbler aspirants of the digital revolution have their own answer. Not as cool and sleek perhaps as Apple's revolutionary tablet but something that will do pretty much the same for those with limited budgets.

It is this dream that Suneet Singh Tuli wants to fulfill as he charts out a second coming for his UbiSlate device, also known as Aakash in India. A cosy relationship with government agencies turned sour after the ambitious device failed a controversial and belated set of tests.

Up again on its feet, it is now ready for a second launch this Sunday.

A Canadian of Indian origin, Tuli bet on the bottom of the pyramid.

His company, DataWind, based in the UK and Canada, seemed to have hit the bull's eye last year when it won a bid to supply 100,000 low-cost tablets branded Aakash, for the ministry of human resources after winning a tender.

Priced at Rs 2,276 for the government these 'Nano of tablets' cost a mere Rs 3,000 in the open market and immediately caught fancy of the world. Compare that with the iPad, whose lowliest variant costs Rs 23,000 in India.

"We never intended to grab the tablet market targeted by iPad or other costlier tabs. Rather, our effort was to create a completely new market," Tuli said. He has already met with success.

DataWind has supplied 350,000 of its tablets while sitting on an order-book of four million from its pre-bookings.

Tuli has set up four manufacturing facilities in India, two in Delhi, one each at Hyderabad and Amritsar, to make the device that aims to cut costs through smart techniques such as Internet-linked efficiencies and low-cost distribution.

President Pranab Mukherjee will launch Aakash2 - the improved version.

If it clicks as Tuli expects to, it would mark a fruitful finale to a roller-coaster ride he has been on for the past 12 months.

Weeks after human resources minister Kapil Sibal launched 'Aakash' last year Tuli was inundated with orders.

Equated with the Tata Nano, the world's cheapest car that faced questions on quality and reliability, Aakash too ran into problems.

While independent analysts gave a thumbs-down to the device for its clunky features and questioned its efficacy even for students in the hinterlands, worse still, the IIT, Rajasthan, named the technology partner for the HRD ministry, said Aakash failed its tests.

This was vociferously contested by DataWind. The two are involved in a legal suit.

One year later, IIT, Bombay has replaced IIT, Rajasthan as the government's agency and it has approved the Aakash.

The newer version is said to be a smarter and wiser variant of the one that failed.

The new variant has a capacitive screen, an improvement on the earlier resistive screen. The price is up by a notch.

The UbiSlate would now be available at Rs 3,500 -- and still be the cheapest tablet in the market.

DataWind aims to launch its tablet in screen sizes of 5 inches, 10 inches, and 14 inches over the next one year. It already has a 7-inch version. "By the end of this year we aim to start manufacturing 10,000 units per day," said a beaming Tuli.

It might help that Forbes magazine on Friday included Tuli in its 'Impact 15' list of education innovators who are harnessing disruptive technologies that changes education.