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Doubts over India’s $20 Laptop

The super-cheap laptop project meets with widespread skepticism.
February 4, 2009

Yesterday, India unveiled a prototype laptop that will reportedly cost only $20. Dubbed Sakshat, the machine is meant to bridge the digital divide and provide a means for delivering online educational materials to students in more than 18,000 colleges across the country. But the prospect of producing any kind of laptop so cheaply has been met with widespread skepticism.

The pioneer laptop in this area is the XO machine created by the nonprofit One Laptop per Child (OLPC) foundation. This machine was originally meant to cost $100, but the price now stands at $188. While the foundation maintains that it can break the $100 barrier–and may even reach $75 in its next-generation version–creating a $20 machine is all but impossible, says Jim Gettys, OLPC’s former vice president for software.

“I don’t understand how anyone can build anything for real at that price,” Gettys says. “There are too many components that cost $20 by themselves, never mind as a package.” He mentions that even in volume, a low-cost screen runs to more than $20, while touch pads and keyboards cost $5 to $10 apiece, and memory and processors cost considerably more.

Sakshat was reportedly unveiled yesterday morning in Tirupati, India, by the Indian Education Ministry. According to these reports, Sakshat has two gigabytes of random-access memory and wireless and fixed Ethernet connections, consumes just two watts of power, and will be available in retail outlets in India in six months. Generally, though, the announcement raised more questions than it answered about what had actually been achieved.

R. P. Agrawal, India’s secretary of secondary and higher education, who is leading the project, did not reply to messages, and there appeared to be no direct, official online announcement. But according to reports, the laptop was created over several months in a cooperative effort involving India’s Vellore Institute of Technology; the Indian Institute of Science, in Bangalore; and the Indian Institute of Technology, in Madras.

Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC, also expressed skepticism over the price. “Wish the $20 laptop were true,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding that if the laptop’s claims were “close to true,” it would be “a sign of great success” for OLPC in spurring development of low-cost machines for students around the world. “The technical data we have received to now suggests it is very inferior, but that does not matter at all,” he added.

Vivek Pai, a computer scientist at Princeton University working on computing solutions for the developing world, says that, at a $20 price point, “it might be more plausible if we were talking about a ‘fat keyboard’ type of system that connects to a TV.” After reading press coverage of the machine’s specs, he adds that “it might be fine as an e-book reader, but I don’t believe it will be a general-purpose machine.”

Whatever the cost and capabilities of the machine, the effort may represent something of a turnaround for the Indian government. In 2006, Sudeep Banerjee, then the Indian minister of education, criticized the OLPC laptop and educational software as “pedagogically suspect” and added, “We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools.” But yesterday, the aims of the Sakshat project seemed remarkably similar to those of OLPC, right down to the development of online content and digital textbooks from major publishers.

Part of the reason that the laptop might be so cheap is because of government subsidies. A report in the Times of India said that government agencies would provide funding for related infrastructure.

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