'Revolutions often begin with unimaginable ideas'

In the city to give a talk at the TEDxGateway, an independently organised TED event at the National Centre for the Performing Arts today, Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of UK-based Datawind, the company that produced the world's cheapest tablet Aakash (UbiSlate in its commercial version that ships in February 2012), is a busy man. In between taxi rides to and from the airport, the soft-spoken man tells us why the tablet, which has already garnered 3 lakh bookings eight weeks before its official launch, might offer free 3G services, and improve your rickshawalla's standard of living

The tablet interface really doesn't require any computer education to use. Is that why UbiSlate is a tablet and not a netbook or notebook?
The touchscreen interface is very intuitive, and that's what makes it accessible. I taught my three year-old the alphabet by using an app on a tablet that let him pull a train across the screen to trace along the letters. He didn't have the dexterity to hold a pencil at his age, but this was so simple that he could do it.

Suneet Singh Tuli with the UbiSlate. Pic/ Satyajit Desai

When mobile phones were first introduced in India, the argument was similar -- that India lacked the literacy levels required for cellphone penetration. Today, 900 million people in the country use cellphones. We don't realise how resourceful people are. Given the opportunity to use technology, they find ways to take advantage of it. That's why a low-cost tablet makes sense for someone who cannot afford a personal computer.

Pre launch orders have already crossed an unprecedented 3 lakh, we hear.
It's amazing. The belief is that access to a computer and the Internet empowers you and improves your quality of life through education, and is the biggest reason for our orders. Mostly, it's institutes who want to give students the opportunity to use the tablet, or individual consumers who are motivated by the educational opportunities for their children. If that can be delivered in Rs 3,000, we must take advantage of it. Also for the first time, people are proud of a quality product that's made in India, as well as inspired by it to want to do good with it. We also get orders from corporates, who want to equip their service staff with the tablet.

You've often said UbiSlate doesn't have any competition.
Let's be clear -- we're not competing with the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. People who can afford an iPad are likely to own a personal computer, and use the tablet for on-the-move tasks. The closest competition is the cheap tablets of Chinese make that cost Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000. But those offer Wi-fi only. We offer GPRS too, because in India, people who will have Wi-fi will probably have a broadband Internet connection at home and can afford an Apple product.

At Rs 3,000, UbiSlate's primary target audience is the consumer who can't afford to spend Rs 15,000 on a personal computer. Take the example of call centre staff in Tier 2 cities, who make about Rs 10,000 a month. 50 per cent of that goes towards food. A rickshawalla who may own a mobile phone and would want his child to use a computer. For these people, UbiSlate will be the first personal computer that will also act as a phone, give them access to HD video, Internet apps, multimedia and games. Even the cheapest smartphone doesn't fall in the price range of our tablet, which offers much more than its basic functionality.

Our market, and consequently, the opportunity, is much larger.

How important is Internet and mobile network connectivity in the UbiSlate?
The ultimate goal is to bring Internet penetration up to the same level as mobile network penetration. That allows anytime accessibility, which is essential in the Indian market. One of the first studies done by the One Laptop Per Child project was that in Cambodia, people were using the laptops, which weren't connected to the Internet, as a light source.

We therefore feel that this kind of device needs to be connected to the Internet to be valuable. We're also in talks with a mobile network operator to provide low cost, and eventually, free Internet access on the tablet.
You cannot expect a user who buys a tablet for Rs 3,000 to spend Rs 1,500 a month on 3G services. The service has be available for less than Rs 100. We  plan to start at Rs 99 and drive it down to zero in first year. It's not impossible, because our model is the United Kingdom, where that has happened. Like on TV, you don't pay for what you watch, because that content is essentially being paid for by advertisers on the channel. Similarly, Internet access too can be covered by advertising.

Criticism of the UbiSlate has centred around the fact in a country where people grapple with water, basic sanitation and electricity problems, a tablet computer is unnecessary and wasteful.
The dream is to create a fully loaded tablet that every rickshawalla can afford. As with mobile phones, which were initially a communication tool and then expanded into entertainment, it will soon be an e-commerce tool. The opportunities will continue to evolve. Today, you may not have rickshawallas creating websites in a rush, but a few years later, it will happen.

Revolutions often begin with unimaginable concepts. To the naysayers I'd like to say, that the perception that we are in the dark ages isn't correct. Nine hundred million people have mobilephones and know how to charge their phones, with or without access to electricity. That doesn't stop us from moving forward. I believe that tools like UbiSlate challenge people, and improve quality of life and standard of living.

Today, India has 4 per cent Internet penetration, which is embarrassingly low even even China averages around 50 to 60 per cent. That should be a national crisis, because we're going nowhere with only 48 million people online. What we're doing is offering them the opportunity to get online.

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