I had the opportunity to listen to the developer of the worlds cheapest tablet, the Aakash, http://www.engineering.utoronto.ca/About/Engineering_Events/Engineering_Technology_for_Social_Change__Suneet_Tuli__CivE_9T0___DataWind_Co-founder.htm this week about the use of technology in enhancing welfare. I was interested to hear him speak, in particular, because the tablet has gotten quite a bit of bad press (for example http://one.laptop.org). I was curious how he would respond to these comments.
I left the talk with a much different view - and it is not just the sales numbers which are truly astounding (expecting 5 000 000 in the first year in a market that was selling 250 000 per year).
While he was very much aware of the bad press, he was generally not interested, in particular, commenting that the tablet was not developed for the western market. Quite simply, he believes that western new agencies do not understand the Indian market. The One Laptop Per Child project can be powered by a hand crank, whereas the Aakash must be powered by the grid. He brought the interesting perspective that there are http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communications_in_India (my numbers), and each of these is powered by the grid. While the grid may be challenging at times, Indians have figured out how to work with it. Similarly, the Aakash has two full size USB ports because the USB thumb drive is so popular in India, a feature absent on many tablets destined for the North American market.
However, the most interesting part of the talk about not about the tablet, but about the economics. His objective is to sell the tablet with free unlimited lifetime 3G-style internet access. The is perhaps the epitome of the advertiser pays model described so well in Free: The Future of a Radical Price (an excellent book). In fact, by tying the tablet to his data service, he actually makes money offering free internet. He can sell advertising on the tablet for more than the cost of the internet access.