Sunday, July 25, 2010

India’s Laptop For The Masses

On Friday the government of India announced plans to produce and sell a touch-pad laptop computer, with many of the same features of Apple’s new iPad, for the bargain-basement price of just $35. India’s Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal, said the device was designed by the India Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science, two of the country’s elite universities; and that the cost-savings came in large part by using low-cost components: the device uses flash memory instead of a hard drive for data storage and uses an open-source Linux-based operating system.

The Indian device is similar in concept to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, a low-cost computer aimed at students in developing nations who otherwise couldn’t afford one and is meant to prevent them from being left behind in the digital age by giving them access to the Internet and teaching them how to use digital technology. The OLPC laptop and the new Indian device both rely on the idea of “economy of scale” for their low, low prices; economy of scale reasons that most of the cost of a given device comes in its design and prototype phase, once it is put into production though the cost will drop with every unit produced – make millions and the per unit cost will be quite small.

But OLPC never actually hit its target price of $100, each unit sells for about twice that (though they did succeed in creating a rugged, easy-to-use laptop for students in the developing world). Critics of the Indian project say that the Indian government’s price-point of $35 is utterly unrealistic. Minister Sibal admitted the government still needs to find a producer for the laptop, and that the government tapped scientists on staff at the universities to develop the prototype after the private sector failed to meet a government tender to do so. The Economic Times of India also notes that one in two Indians (roughly half a billion people) already regularly access the Internet via their mobile phones, questioning whether the cheap touch-pad laptop is even needed in the first place.

An earlier attempt by the Indian government to create and distribute a low-cost laptop never got off the ground, we’ll keep an eye on this second attempt and see if it fares any better.
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