You don't have to be a marketing genius or industry pundit to foresee that tablets will be an extremely hot sector in 2012. The launch of Apple's iPad in 2010 largely defined the category, just as the launch of the iPhone defined a new kind of smartphone in 2007; in 2012 we will probably begin to see Android tablets start to gain major market share just as Android smartphones have done this year.
Currently, the tablet is something of a cross between the hipster tech toy of choice and a trivially easy-to-use computing device for couch potatoes. But those early sectors are incidental to the tablet's real potential to revolutionize education, particularly in emerging economies.
The devices are perfect: they are compact, connect to the Net wirelessly, run off battery power for hours and can be used by children and adults alike with little or no training. There's just one problem, of course: the typical tablet's high-end pricing – hundreds of dollars – places it so far out of reach for most of the world's population that it might as well not exist for them. That is what makes India's Aakash tablet - basic cost around $50, but only $37 for Indian students thanks to a government subsidy – so remarkable, and so important.
Of course its specifications are somewhat limited compared to the iPad – 256M RAM, 2 GB Flash memory, 7" 800x480 pixel resistive touch screen – but that's not really the point. The key issue is whether it is good enough for the educational purposes governments around the world have in mind. For although the Aakash began as a project purely for India, it has been swiftly taken up by a number of other countries, as this fascinating feature about the creation of Aakash by the Canadian wireless device maker Datawind explains:
[Datawind's CEO] Suneet was invited to meet with Thailand’s Minister for Information Communications Technology (who was so interested in purchasing 10 million tablets that he attended their meeting even as flood waters descended on Bangkok). Calls arrived from Turkey (which wants 15 million tablets), Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Egypt.
This gives an indication of the potential of the Aakash low-cost tablet: to provide portable computing devices and with them access to digital knowledge on a truly global scale. The feature also explains how exactly Datawind managed to produce a tablet for a tenth of the cost of an iPad:
Part of the difficulty in engineering such a device is that the underlying goal—that its final price should be within the means of those who can’t afford high-priced tablets—dictates crucial engineering and component decisions. A piece of high-impact-resistant glass, such as the touchscreen face of an iPad, can cost upward of $20. Datawind’s touchscreen glass, which the company had engineered down the street, costs less than $2, though it won’t allow for luxuries like pinch-and-zoom finger swiping. There were also compromises on processing power: Datawind’s 366 megahertz processor costs less than $5, a fraction of the $15-plus price tag on the chips that power iPads and other comparable tablets. And while the decision to run Google’s free Android mobile operating system on the gadget saves money, it requires coders to dig deep into the Linux kernel that underpins the software, tweaking it until it runs smoothly on Datawind’s weaker processor.
As that makes clear, one key ingredient in the design of the Aakash was Android – and hence free software. This meant that Datawind's software engineers were able to build on several years' work by Google – and two decades of coding by the Linux community – rather than starting from scratch.
It's a reminder that even if – as seems likely – Apple's iPad retains its highly-profitable hold on the upper end of the market, it will never be able to offer a model that is competitive with minimalist tablets built around free software at the bottom. And since it is precisely those ultra-cheap models that will be sold in their hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions one day, that means that the real tablet revolution – the one that will transform education in emerging economies and with it, their societies - will not be one in which Apple plays a major part, despite its early leadership here.
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