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Indian HRD Minister Kapil Sibal unveils the "$35" Net access device ( PIB photo)
 
 
Indian‘$35 computing-cum access device’ is mostly hype

Indian HRD Ministry’s announcement, thin on tech. details, credible commercial plan

IndiaTechOnline comment

“Computer for just Rs1500!” screamed one leading Indian newspaper on Friday last – a headline more or less repeated across country. Wire services including Reuters and AP helped spread the news even wider – so that someone at PC World got very excited and decided “India’s $35 PC is the Future of Computing” . Our most widely circulated business daily, Economic Times, was first off the press with an editorial only a day later titled “Incredible India: Game changing low cost PC”. At IndiaTechOnline, we are a mite less enthused. Human Resources Minister Kapil Sabil was on hundreds of front pages holding aloft the device which the government’s official release says might drop in price to $ 20 and eventually to $10 – without revealing even the most basic specifications of the system. It has a touch screen – which seems to us from photographs to be about 8 to 10 inches across. It is a Linux device; it will soon run on solar cells; it has video conferencing facility; it’s a media player; it runs Open Office… reports from Delhi had small factoids – none of them based on a formal announcement document.

Multiple Indian Institutes of Technology were however credited with helping to conceptualise the device – but we  are seriously alarmed to read in the PIB note that the cost mentioned seems to derive from the bill of materials of a student project which was $ 47 “ at that point of time”. The printed circuit board was made at IIT Kanpur –we are told. All very interesting – but what is the processor? What is the memory or the storage? What is the operating system? What is the connectivity? Surely these are basic facts that one would expect when government is unveiling something with so much fanfare?

Deja vu

Minister Sibal perhaps had a sense of déja vu when he held aloft the device. We did. In May 2005, he held aloft a similar device. It was called Mobilis. Only, at that time he was the Minister for Science – and his ministry had supported the development of this mobile computer – a sort of desktop-laptop hybrid, by the Bangalore base Encore Software Ltd. It was said to cost Rs10,000 then – but the product never hit the shelves in India. We understand Encore sold them in South America with some success.

Ironically Encore was also one of two Bangalore companies ( the other was PicoPeta) which produced the Simputer at the turn of the century to tremendous global acclaim. A truly disruptive device, the  hand held Simputer has been in use in limited numbers with police, health workers and the like – but lack of government interest and support, throttled the potential of this, the first truly Indian computing product. 
In February 2009, the HRD Ministry unveiled another ‘ultra low cost’ computing device at an ICT conference in Tirupati , and the price was said to be around $ 10. It appeared to be nothing more than a Flash based connection device and only attracted ridicule in the rest of the world.
So we will wait to hear what exactly lies beneath the device that Mr Sibal flourished last week. We will defer our excitement till we hear that the ‘computing-cum access device’ is actually being produced in numbers and will ask to touch, feel and use a unit. We would like to know the street price of the device – and not a B.Tech project’s bill of materials.
We share the Indian dream of  “Sakshat”  ( inclusiveness)…of using ICT for education (http://www.sakshat.ac.in/) – but we will wait to see a ‘real’ market-ready device at an affordable price before we join any national chorus of congratulation and back slapping.

Link to PIB’s release: http://pib.nic.in/release/release.asp?relid=63417

July 25 2010

UPDATESoon after we published the above, we received the comments of Prasanto Roy, Chief Editor of the Dataquest group of magazines. He writes:

The Rs 10,000 PC. The Simputer. The $100 MIT laptop. NetPCs from a host of companies. India's so-called $10 laptop. How many flops and failures will it take to convince governments (and brave but misled companies) to get these facts of tech, products, and life?

You don't launch products until you have a product to launch. Else it's vaporware. The Indian government is building up a good track record of vaporware, from $10 laptops upward. (Apple launches with a million units ready to sell, and midnight queues outside.)

You don't show prototypes unless they are working ones with running apps, backed by a clear game plan to build up a vendor and apps network, and a clear design, spec (and preferably bill of materials)…..

You don't re-invent the wheel. We already have $35 computing devices. We call them mobile phones. They're capable, connected, always-on, personal, and every second Indian has one. They're an ideal front-end to information and entertainment, served over voice or SMS or data.

Over the years I've been less blunt about cheap-PC efforts. But now I am angry. The government is wasting its efforts and my tax money, and making a laughing stock of Indian technological prowess.

It isn't the government's job to create and sell cheap PCs. If it wants to use ICT for development and education, it can use some of our tax rupeers to build the ecosystem.