How can India build a $35 tablet? More details emerge

It's not exactly a $35 pipe dream, but this is starting to sound an awful lot like OLPC, circa 2006.

On Friday I covered the $35 tablet prototype that the Indian government unveiled. Over the weekend, it's been called everything from the "future of computing" to "devices [that] cannot compensate for [India's] crumbling education infrastructure and absenteeism of teaching staff." A few more details have emerged, however, suggesting that this prototype is a lot closer to a reference spec than something that will see the light of day soon.

I started digging into this a little bit further when a little birdie from Intel said "It doesnt add up - the sum of the parts is no where near the whole cost they are claiming..." Not a literal birdie, of course, but I'm waiting for an OK to attribute the quite reasonable statement to a source. Regardless, both the Times of India and shed a bit more light on the device.

According to the Times of India,

HRD ministry has made an open invitation to one and all to come up with more variants that fulfills specifications spelt out by it. The ministry has set up several separate teams, which are involved in bringing out their prototypes...The $35 price, [human resources development minister Kapil Sibal] said, is inclusive of cost of manufacturing abroad. However, the cost of the solar panel has not been factored into the price yet....At the current price point of $35, Sibal said, there would be 50% subsidy to educational institutions, which will effectively bring down the cost to only Rs 750. The initial order will be for no less than one lakh laptops.

On lakh, by the way, is 100,000. So not only is it apparent that the prototype only lays out the specifications for the tablet but that cost estimates rely on predictions of massive economies of scale and local government large-scale purchases. If this sounds familiar, it's virtually the same rhetoric that Nicholas Negroponte used to convince the world that he could build a $100 laptop. quotes a report from the AP in an update to their initial coverage of the device:

India plans to subsidize the cost of the tablet for its students, bringing the purchase price down to around $20.

“Depending on the quality of material they are using, certainly it’s plausible,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research. “The question is, is it good enough for students?”

Good question, Ms. Epps. The specifications for this device are actually quite compelling, as is the goal of cheap, ubiquitous connectivity and access to the cloud via devices that are genuinely affordable. As with OLPC, however, the opportunity costs may be too high at this point, as many schools in India (as in other developing countries) struggle with simple infrastructural issues. An editorial in the Times of India rails against the government's approach:

When most of our government-run schools in the villages don't even have basic infrastructure such as furnished classrooms, blackboards and toilets, our officials are itching to bring in subsidised computing devices.

This isn't to say that development efforts for highly-affordable student-centered computing devices shouldn't continue in India and elsewhere. On the contrary, devices like these have the potential to leverage extraordinary advances in cloud computing and be part of both modern, connected classrooms as well as bridging the digital divide. A little dose of reality and perspective, however, is mighty important as we move towards those goals.