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Business Report

An Anti-iPad for India

Suneet Singh Tuli, the man behind the ultracheap Aakash 2 tablet, says the West doesn’t understand mobile business in the developing world.

Mobile computers are getting cheaper, but many people in the developing can’t afford to get them connected to the Internet.

A devout Sikh, Suneet Singh Tuli, 44, has found his own way to live by his religion’s central belief of sarbat da bhala, or “may everyone be blessed.”

Datawind CEO
Cheap screen: Suneet Singh Tuli holds the inexpensive tablet computer he hopes to mass-market in India.

He wants everyone in India to be on the Internet.

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To that end, Tuli’s London company, DataWind, is building very inexpensive tablet computers, which it assembles in China or with the help of support staff at its India offices. The idea, Tuli says, is to pair cheap tablets with ad-supported wireless service as a way to bridge the digital divide between poor and rich countries.

DataWind began winning attention last year when it struck a deal to supply India’s government with 100,000 of its Aakash 2 tablets, for roughly $40 each, by this March 31. That tablet works only near Wi-Fi points, but DataWind also sells an $83 commercial version called Ubislate 7C+, which comes with an unlimited mobile data plan for around $2 per month. Within 18 months, Tuli says, he hopes to bring the price of a basic tablet down to $25 and make the Internet connection free.

Tuli’s company is not a charity. DataWind plans to make money with its own app store and by displaying ads in its built-in browser (which also compresses websites for fast delivery over India’s slow wireless networks). MIT Technology Review spoke with Tuli about his company’s business model and the future of tablet computing in India.

You’ve said that you never intended to be in the hardware business. What do you mean?

We think that hardware is dead. A gigahertz processor costs $4. It’s good enough for most everything you’d want to do with a tablet, and not just for poor people in India. Hardware has gotten cheap enough that restaurants or resorts should be giving customers tablets to walk away with for free. Hardware is becoming a customer-acquisition tool.

So tablets should be literally disposable, like USB flash drives?

I don’t like the word “disposable,” but by 2015, you’re going to see tablets reach the stage where you can just pick one up at 7-Eleven. And for consumers in the developing world, tablets will be their first computer.

We did a study to understand where the inflection point for PC deployment in the U.S. was: when did PCs really take off? Our assessment was that when the cost of purchasing PCs fell to within 20 percent of monthly salary, you started to see them in every home. In a place like India, there are about billion people for whom $50 meets that criterion.

What new businesses will ultracheap tablets lead to in the developing world?

There are going to be applications that will create billion-dollar opportunities, but we may not understand them in the West or be able to relate to them. My epiphany came when I saw a magazine ad in India that showed a minivan with a driver’s seat that could be laid down 180 degrees. I thought, “How dumb is that?” Then I realized that most of these minivans were used as taxis, and the taxi drivers actually slept in them.

In the same way, the applications of these tablets will be very unique, and I’m not sure that I can comprehend what all of them would be. But I’m hoping that if we own the platform, we can become the conduit for those applications and those businesses.

You’re practically giving away the tablets. So what’s your strategy for making this into a business?

The first killer app on these devices is going to be Internet access. We have 18 patents on how to deliver basic Web access, even on India’s GPRS networks. The idea is to bundle free Internet access with advertising on an affordable tablet. Basic browsing without audio or video streaming would be available for free, and we’d have a banner ad that runs on the top, which pays for the cost of data service and makes us money.

Does the Ubislate come with free Internet access right now?

In India, the free usage model is not in place yet. We have a Rs.98 ($1.80)-per-month data plan for unlimited usage. It is a fraction of what other plans cost, and we intend to drive it down to free.

What new opportunities do you see for apps in the developing world?

Nobody focuses on the problem of creating apps for somebody whose monthly income is $200. Those people are not part of the computer age or the Internet age; most of them are not literate. So we run app competitions in India to try to get people thinking from that perspective. The winner of our last competition was a group of students who designed a commerce app for “fruit walas,” the guys who run around with carts selling fruits and vegetables. These students created a graphically intuitive way of running a small vegetable business.

There are something like five million fruit walas in India, so if you had an app for them, there could be a lot of money to be made.

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