The new Aakash: Can India’s student tablet really make an impact again?

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News recently dropped that the new version of the Aakash, India’s “student” version of a tablet computer, will launch on 11 November this year. The slate will be priced around US$42 for now, until the numbers scale up enough to pull the tag below US$35. The question is – does this second attempt come too late in the day for this little mickey?

This is a first anywhere in the world, perhaps. An elected government getting into the “business” of e-learning by placing an order for a cheap, ‘Made In India’, computing device, and then handing over the same for an even cheaper price to students in India’s 400 universities. All for a social cause. Indian Minister of Communications and Information Technology Kapil Sibal, who also holds the Human Resource Development (HRD) portfolio, announced the second coming of the Aakash. The word in Hindi means, “The Sky”. Leaving some (uncharitable?) souls t(w)ittering across social networks that the comeback would bring the tablet crashing to earth.

Why the pessimism?

Before I get into that, readers should be aware that there’s a commercial version of the Aakash called the UbiSlate (and its subsequent versions), which comes with a slightly more expensive price tag. So we are talking two versions here, segregated not by any technical parameter but simply the end-users. Aakash represents a social cause while UbiSlate is the commercial version.

The negative prognosis floating around the internet stems from many factors. Things had gone awfully wrong after the first launch of the Aakash last year. The slate was criticised as being too slow, non-responsive, having poor battery life and an even poorer display.

The second reason for the pessimism is that the Minister used the word “hopefully” in the same breath as the word, “launch”. Which means the Government of India is unsure about the deadline still. In India, launch dates are not so sacrosanct so let’s give that a pass. It’s temporary.

The third is the tech specs. Details are sketchy but here’s what I have gathered from online sources about the new version of Aakash:

The slate will be powered by a 1 GHz CPU, will come with a seven-inch capacitive touchscreen, will run on the Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), 2 GB memory and will have at least four hours of battery life.

Let’s compare this with the vital stats of the first-born:

That version had a 7-inch resistive touchscreen, which, as you may well know, is not very sensitive to touch. The machine was powered by Android v2.2 (Froyo) on a 366MHz processor, based on an older ARM architecture.

Yes, between the first and the second versions, definitely an improvement. Yet, the guys whose sole business is to analyse tech specs threadbare, say it’s no great shakes. Nothing that makes the UbiSlate stand out from the pack except perhaps its price. Pay slightly more, says this tribe, and you can lay your hands on better-grade tabs.

The business-end guys are already asking that dreaded question – does the slate pack enough to fly off the counters? Datawind, the company that manufactures both versions, has just launched the latest in the commercial version series, calling it the UbiSlate 7C. Selling price: about US$81. Datawind President CEO, Sunil Singh Tulli has reasoned that the price hike was more because of the weakening of the Indian rupee against the US dollar, but insists the Ubi continues to remain the “cheapest” tablet on the Android system anywhere in the world. The earlier model, UbiSlate 7+ is going for about US $61. UbiSlate 7C projective capacitive screen is one up on the UbiSlate 7+ resistive screen. We all know by now the difference in the two screens, so no guesses on the model customers will ultimately pick up, despite the price difference.

So on to the moot question — does the UbiSlate measure up to the competition? A cheap price tag is not always enough to sell a tech product though it is definitely a head turner. It gets a customer’s attention. Then, the gadget’s innards have to do the talking. Between last year and now, the company may have lost its business lead, and if does not do something to recover fast in addition to harping on the fact that it is the cheapest, I am afraid, it may end up in the cemetery of ‘has-been’ tablets.

I am sure Tulli will only be too aware of the fact that India has turned into a huge market for cheap Android tablets; they seem to be everywhere. Almost every manufacturer of note has introduced a low-cost tablet in the price range of about US$80-US$150.

Between April and June 2012, 0.55-million tablets were sold as compared to just about 70,000 tablets in the same period last year, says a report by CyberMedia Research. There! See. Tablets have taken a 673% jump a year on year basis in the Indian market.

I would say UbiSlate should take a hard look at this report, it’s an eye-opener. I will pan out some of its more prominent measurements here:

Indian brand Micromax led the pack with a 18.4% share of the market. Samsung followed at the second position with 13.3% share. Apple was at number 3 with 12.3% in terms of sales. In the same period, 47.4% of tablet sales were from new entrants in the market with a strong focus on addressing application areas in the education and entertainment segments. Translated: it means these devices were targeting the young.

So, Datawind need not worry about competition from some exotic foreign brand but an Indian brand. Micromax claims to be the 12th largest manufacturer of handsets in the world. It has flooded the market with cheap “smartphone tablets” with names like Funbook and Funbook Pro. The Funbook is selling online for about US$115, and has slightly better specs than the UbiSlate. It may not be in the league of an Apple iPad (selling for approx. US$565), but the trade figures show it as the leader of the pack for now, so who cares. It’s a no-frills model, it’s cheap, and best of all, it’s a tab.

Image: Ubislate

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